Days 182 – 184 (Nov 30th – Dec 2nd) At sea and Australia. Phillip Island and Melbourne

Our day at sea saw us still sailing up the east coast of Tasmania through deep waters but as we approached the northern tip where the Bass Strait separates the island state of Tasmania from the Australian mainland the average depth decreases to 60 m (200 ft) and it is at this point where marine wildlife is most often found as nutrient-rich deep water is forced into the shallows. The Bass Strait is notoriously rough due to the the strong currents between the Antarctic-driven southeast portions of the Indian Ocean and the Tasman Sea’s Pacific Ocean waters. The shipwrecks on the Tasmanian and Victorian coastlines number in the hundreds, although stronger metal ships and modern marine navigation have greatly reduced the danger. Many vessels have disappeared without a trace or left scant evidence of their passing. Despite myths and legends of piracy, wrecking and alleged supernatural phenomena akin to those of the Bermuda Triangle, such disappearances can be invariably ascribed to treacherous combinations of wind and sea conditions, and the numerous semi-submerged rocks and reefs within the Straits. As we passed through into the strait, there were several whale sightings, a pod of dolphins followed us for some time and Short-tailed shearwaters became increasingly evident.

The ventures team have been a positive force onboard and have contributed significantly to this trip being a success (for us at least). On this morning they were filming for their blog

The same day a Grand Gala dinner was arranged in the evening. We were all invited to hosted tables and music was provided by the cast

Steven (ex-truck driver), Rachel, Ellie & Matt

We were sat with 2 other couples, one from Argentina & Germany and the others from Chile. The Argentinian lady was delightful, if a little snooty, as she agreed with me about the merits of the tango but complained about the deckchairs making a noise on the ceiling of the “Owners Suite” in the morning, a first world problem if ever there was one!. For reference the owners suites are extremely expensive.

Phillip Island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, 11/2 hours drive from Melbourne, turned out to be our last stop of beauty and adventure before hitting the mainland.

The tender was a good 20 minute ride into the jetty due to low tides and sea depth. On the way, we spotted Australian pelicans, which have much longer and thinner beaks. On arrival we were greeted with a jazz concert from the local Rotary club. There was a shuttle bus to Cowes, the nearest large town and you could go onwards to Ventnor. Were we on the Isle of Wight by mistake? The scenery and gardens of the houses were very British but no, we were on another idyllic island and chose to walk to the headland and the famous wetlands, looking for waders after another chance to eat off the boat presented itself and an enjoyable and tasty lunch was had.

Walking up to the headland we spotted a strange little animal scuffling around in the grass, a mixture between a hedgehog and a porcupine. We were later told it was an Echidna or spiny anteater.

Walking back through the park, we were treated to the very noisy Galahs, a grey and pink parrot that abound all over Australia and ticked off a few more Aussie bird species

That evening was the long-awaited sunset walk to a Short-tailed shearwater breeding colony on Cape Woolamai. Guided by Graham, a naturalist who is a ranger for Phillip Island Nature Parks, and who has worked on the colony for many years, we had a superb trip out. Firstly, walking along the pristine beach towards the headland

Carefully monitored by the local wallabies

We started coming across eggs randomly strewn across the landscape

These are shearwater eggs. They are quite large and are found because inexperienced shearwaters arrive back on land, can’t make their burrows in time and lay the eggs, undoubtedly with a great sigh of relief. Unfortunately, these are quickly picked out by gulls and by the next morning have been eaten.

As the sun starts to set, hundreds of thousands of shearwaters start to accumulate in huge rafts off-shore, waiting for it to get dark so they can safely fly to their burrows. We were all treated to a glass of champagne and settled down to wait for the spectacle to begin.

On the headland there are approximately 2 burrows per square metre, so the whole area, away from the paths which cross the headland, is a network of burrows in the sand, accompanied on occasion by the tracks left by the Copperhead snakes which predate the eggs, much to Helen’s horror…. As the sun sets, the shearwaters fly overhead and round, slowly dropping down as they pick out landmarks near their nest holes. They then drop down silently and scurry into the nest holes, from which come delighted calls as the birds are reunited with their mates, who having been egg sitting for a few days, and will be desperate to fly out to sea and feed.

Flocks building up over the sea
Getting closer
Final approach

Graham explained to us the history of this site, which used to be a poorly maintained farm and was taken over by the Nature Parks group so it could be restored to its former status. As a result the wallabies have returned in numbers and the shearwaters are maintaining their numbers. One major predator, foxes (inexplicably introduced by the English so they could go hunting…) has been eliminated but one non-native predator remains, the domestic cat. We passed the remains of a shearwater predated by a cat and these animals present a real threat to these defenceless birds. Quite incredibly, from next year it will be illegal for a domestic cat to be allowed outside. They can be housed in cages in the garden, but roaming free will be banned, punishable by a large fine. Each cat has to be tagged and neutered. The argument is that the shearwaters are a natural phenomenon and something special to Phillip Island so they should be protected.

We walked back along the beach to the light of a crescent moon, a fabulous night.

Melbourne is very close to Phillip Island and we were supposed to be arriving at 8am, ready for a tour out with the head chef buying food at the local market for the chef. These trips are very popular and we’d bagged spaces on the last one only to hear the ship couldn’t dock until 10am and the trip was cancelled.

Instead we walked into Melbourne City, past the beach

Up Bay Street, past numerous cafes, restaurants and bakeries through to an area of historically protected housing

And into the centre of Melbourne which is very modern. At this point we were lost so jumped on a tram, were helped by people until we got to a shopping centre, bought the suitcase we needed to send stuff back to the UK and returned by taxi. This is a lovely city, the people were very friendly and we’ll certainly try to make more of it on a return visit.

Apparently, sailing out of Melbourne is quite difficult as there are lots of dangerous sandbanks

so the pilot didn’t leave the ship until sunset.

Tomorrow was our last sea day, the grand trivia final and brunch for 11!

Days 176 – 181 (Nov 24th – Nov 29th) At sea and Tasmania, Australia. Hobart and Port Arthur

Thanks to the captain avoiding the worst of the weather we had 4 days at sea. Previously these have been fine, calm days with warm air and being able to sit on the rear of deck 7 all afternoon. Changes in our latitude and the weather systems might impact both of these so it was with some trepidation we recommenced sea day mode. Would the entertainment be changed?

Luckily, the first day’s highlight was returning to winning form at trivia. And, given we had time to spare, we arranged all our prizes to take a memorial photograph

Trivia Spoils

As previously stated, the food onboard is good but repetitive and we had spoken to a few others about the possibility of arranging a brunch. Breakfast onboard finishes at 10am and just occasionally it would be nice to have the chance of “a very American all day breakfast”. This presented a great opportunity for a sea day, so having asked Frederico, head of food and beverage, it was agreed to have it at lunch time on Sunday 27th. Perfect, egg, bacon and mimosas were promised and delivered in style at our table placed strategically in the midst of the restaurant. Toast, marmalade and marmite just finished it off superbly. Already the next one is planned for our final weekend but we may be expanding our presence..

The weather was too cold to sit out and increasingly rough but this did present a lot of opportunities for sea bird spotting with 4 species of albatross and a few new species including 2 species of prion, tiny little seabirds that are barely visible from deck

Fairy prion
Broad-billed prion

The 36 hours prior to landfall weren’t the most comfortable as the ship was lurching and pitching in the rough seas and high winds and these, plus the spray, made going on deck a risky business. Probably the worst bit was the banging as the ship went through turbulent waters and at night especially, this could be quite disturbing. However, seasickness there was none, prevented by a homemade remedy containing a high percentage of Jamiesons.

Arriving in Hobart, the sun was out and the sea was calm. It was so nice to see land again although the temperatures were quite low. Hobart started as a penal colony and has also enjoyed a heyday as a whaling centre in the 1830s. Today the wharfside warehouses of Salamanca Place are filled with shops and restaurants, and the settlers cottages in Battery Park are lovingly restored by proud owners. Hobart is Tasmania’s main cruise port, having Australia’s deepest harbour. The port is located on Derwent River, while the city’s background is dominated by Mount Wellington. Hobart is the country’s capital city of Tasmania, which lies approximately 240 km (150 mi) south of mainland Australia.

The city has some lovely buildings reflecting its English history and some parts look very English, including the weather on this particular day.

Hobart used to be a centre of jam-making and this is one of the buildings used back in the day

Later that evening we dined at one of the many high class eating establishments in town

Walking back we passed one of those photo opportunities begging for a witty caption

Overnight we sailed round the coast a few miles to dock at Port Arthur, a small town (500pop) and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula. Port Arthur is one of Australia’s most significant heritage areas and officially Tasmania’s top tourist attraction.

Before immersing ourselves in history, we were booked on Robert Pennicott’s award-winning 3 hour coastal wilderness cruise in an area reminiscent of the Algarve or the Jurassic Coast. The wind was bitterly cold and after a short coach ride across the peninsula we were provided with windproof smocks, ginger tablets to prevent seasickness and boarded a nautical version of a saturn rocket, but without the walls or windows.

Each seat had a seatbelt and these were needed at times as we powered through the occasionally rough seas into a freezing gale. But the scenery was superb as we headed in the direction of Tasman Island, beyond which is nothing until the Antarctic.

Seals and cormorants abounded plus we saw a small pod of short-beaked common dolphins and some albatross and Australasian gannets

The Port Arthur Prison and Coal Mines are a part of the UNESCO World Heritage designation protecting the convict history of Australian settlement and were located right next to where we were dropped off. The imposing Penitentiary, the chilling Separate Prison, the 4 Convict Church, and the ruins of the coal mine community bring to life the earliest European arrivals in this land.

The prison is set in an very English-like landscape, with interesting trees and gardens

Plus quite a nice cafe, with a display which nicely summaries the Australian tendency to abbreviate everything

Tassie wines and beers were also available..

Next to the cafe was a display area plus some terminals so us Brits could check whether anyone with our surnames had been sent over as a convict

We sailed south, out of the harbour and turned east past Tasmin Island before moving north up the Tasmanian coast.

As we passed Tasman Island, huge flocks of sea birds passed down the port side and across the bow of the ship.

Another sea day beckoned, to be followed by adventures on Phillip Island..

Days 170 – 175 (Nov 18th – Nov 23rd) At sea and New Zealand. Gisborne, Napier, Wellington, Kaikoura and Nelson

Sea days have been a bit more exciting as the ship has passed through the feeding grounds of many species of petrels and shearwaters. These birds are attracted by the ship’s lights at night and some end up landing onboard, often finding it impossible to take off again so they find a dark place to hide

The Ventures team started early morning patrols of all the decks and have rescued a number of different birds of varying species. The Black-winged petrel was our first

Followed by a Little shearwater a day later

We were also treated to good views of a large pod of short-beaked common dolphins as they crossed the path of the ship

One of the more American aspects of life onboard is what’s known as the “block party”, where everyone stands outside their room at 6pm and talks to their neighbours over a glass of fizz. This was the last one before arriving in Sydney and we were all then invited up to the Observation Deck for photographs. The multi-talented Bojan, nominally the barista and unofficial IT expert on board, is also the unofficial photographer of the ship as he has the knack of making us look much better on screen than in reality

Mind you Helen has done the same for him…

Bojan, purveyor of caffeine, pastries and good humour

Earlier that day new COVID regulations were announced, stating masks were required onboard for the first time since early October. Quite fortuitously these urgent new regulations weren’t imposed until the morning after the block party…once all the photos had been taken!.

On this leg of our journey around New Zealand, our first port of call was Gisborne, a city on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s known for wineries, surf beaches, being the first city on the planet to see the sun rise each morning and indigenous and colonial history.

Gisborne’s Kaiti Beach is the place where British navigator Captain James Cook made his first landing in New Zealand upon the Endeavour. Cook had earlier set off from Plymouth, England, in August 1768 on a mission bound for Tahiti and on 9 October 1769, Cook came ashore on the eastern bank of the Turanganui River, accompanied by a party of men. Their arrival was marred by misunderstanding and resulted in the death and wounding of nine Māori over four days. This “misunderstanding” seriously compromised Cook’s ability to restock his ship, the reason he called the area Poverty Bay. The landing site was commemorated by a monument in 1906, on the 137th anniversary of Cook’s arrival.

There were a few trips bookable via Seabourn ranging from tours of historic buildings (historic being used in its widest sense), a steam train ride and a helicopter ride to an estate for a 5 course lunch with wine-pairing for a mere $1000 a head but none of these appealed so we wandered into town, found a cafe, had another breakfast out, sat by the beach, walked past some interesting trees

and wandered back via Cook’s memorial and a woman and friend fishing in the river

Not really our favourite place, run-down and not that attractive. We arrived back on board and spoke with Tali, now in Bangkok for a few days

Napier was our next stop, just 97 miles down the coast so we proceeded at a snail’s pace overnight, arriving at 5 in the morning to a gloriously sunny and warm day.

Napier is most famous for it’s Art Deco buildings restored following a massive earthquake in 1931 which rocked Hawke’s Bay for more than three minutes, killing nearly 260 and destroying the commercial centre of the city.

After wandering around we slowly walked back to the ship via a market and a reminder of how vulnerable these communities are

On returning to the ship there was another stowaway to see and watch be released, a rarely seen, tiny Common diving petrel

And our first albatross, a Northern Royal…

Our third stop was Wellington, deservedly named the windy city and situated right at the southern end of the North Island. We had a walk booked with the Venture team, through the Otari-Wilton’s Bush Botanic Garden with a couple of local tour guides. This place is special as by managing invasive plant species and culling introduced mammals they have created a wonderful nature reserve within minutes of the centre of Wellington. Just up the road is another reserve, Zealandia and the two sites together are contributing positively to the conservation of endangered endemic bird species. On example is that of one New Zealand parrot species, the Kaka, which has done well in Zealandia and has now colonised the Botanic Garden. The reserve was full of bird song, dominated by the Tui, as described in an early blog, but also one of the few mainland birds which migrates in the winter, the Shining cuckoo, but the day belonged to the ferns..

…and the ancient trees, in particular this 800 year old rimu

We then went up to a vantage point above the city

Another source of great pride in Wellington is the recent re-introduction of kiwi to a site near the city, a massive step forward in the conservation of this species as it required that a large tract of land be made habitable by removing all the stoats which are the primary reason why Kiwi are struggling in the wild.

We were dropped off in the city centre near the theatre and the Te Papa museum. The theatre was advertising a couple of interesting shows, including a pantomime!

The museum had a gory and very dramatic exhibition on the role of Kiwi soldiers in Gallipoli with giant models of participants from doctors to nurses telling their own personal story. There was also an earthquake house where you could stand and experience an earthquake…although, with 300 earthquakes a year in Wellington, this might be considered a little superfluous by the locals!

The wet and windy weather in Wellington was replaced by a calm and sunny day in Kaikoura, a town on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The infrastructure of Kaikōura was heavily damaged in the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, which also caused two deaths in the area. The sea level of the bay and surrounding region was lifted by as much as two metres. The Kaikōura Peninsula extends into the sea south of the town, and the resulting upwelling currents bring an abundance of marine life from the depths of the nearby Hikurangi Trench. The town owes its origin to this effect, since it developed as a centre for the whaling industry. The name Kaikōura means ‘meal of crayfish’ (kai – food/meal, kōura – crayfish) and the crayfish industry still plays a role in the economy of the region. However, Kaikōura has now become a popular tourist destination, mainly for whale watching (the sperm whale watching is perhaps the best and most developed in the world) and swimming with or near dolphins. It is also one of the best places in the world to see open ocean seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, including the Hutton’s shearwater which nests high in Kaikōura’s mountains. The view from the ship is impressive

We had booked 2 trips, one in the morning to see whales and dolphins, primarily Dusky dolphins and Sperm whales. The latter have quite predictable habits as they dive to huge depths for around 45 minutes before returning to the surface for several minutes reoxygenating before diving again. The company running these trips have set-up a very slick operation with a number of boats which are all in contact with each other. Seeing a whale diving gave them time to take us to the dolphin area, showing the sheer size of the pod

Three adults with young

And some examples of how acrobatic they can be

Moving further out to sea, the captain used a hydrophone to determine where the Sperm whale was and manoeuvred so we had a good view as it recovered from its dive. Despite the immense bulk and size of a Sperm whale there is actually very little to see until it dives

On arrival at the dock we leapt onto another boat and headed out to sea again, to an area where the continental shelf drops deep into the ocean. Many of the seabirds which live in these waters are currently breeding, desperately looking for food to take back to nest sites on either the mainland or one of the islands in the area. They hunt by a sense of smell combined with a keen eye on what other species are doing. Once food is discovered birds will pile in from miles around. A bag of fish heads was strung out behind the boat and birds started arriving, starting with the only bird even a mother couldn’t love, the Giant petrel

A number of different species turned up in the end ranging from the Giant petrel and 4 species of albatross..

Including an appearance from one of the biggest albatrosses on the planet, the Northern Royal

Northern Royal albatross
Westland petrel (left)

And a species which breeds uniquely in Kaikoura, Hutton’s shearwater

Hutton’s shearwater

Leaving Kaikoura the sunset was yet again spectacular

Unbeknown to us things were happening out at sea which would change our intended itinerary but in the meantime we docked at a chilly and windy Nelson, a place we had little appetite to visit but did as it got us out and about and near more interesting places to grab some lunch. Nelson has the sunniest weather in New Zealand with good wineries to boot. Walking through town as the weather warmed up and calmed down we came across the river

And then signs for the “Centre of New Zealand”, something we had to see having already been to the middle of Canada. By some incredible coincidence this is situated at the top of a hill and is also a famed viewpoint over the city and the surrounding countryside. It was a strenuous and very hot walk but well worth the effort

Walking back into town we were reminded of the ever-present dangers of living in this part of the world

Returning to the ship the captain informed us of a change to our itinerary prompted by a huge storm due to impact on the west coast of the South Island over the next 48 hours. This meant that New Plymouth, our next and final stop on the west coast of North Island had closed their harbour and so we had to re-route. One option was to continue west through the passage between North and South Island towards Tasmania, the other was to head south along the east coast before turning west and heading to Tasmania.

The blue circle marks where we would have been on Thurs 24th Nov. The black line indicates our actual route that day.

The Windy weather app is a great tool for seeing conditions on our route and looking forward a couple of days when we reach the southern end of the South Island and turn west the worst of the weather will have passed, a very good decision by the captain. We now had 4 days at sea before reaching Tasmania.

Days 166 – 169 (Nov 14th – Nov 17th) At sea and landfall in New Zealand. Bay of Islands, Auckland & Tauranga

Another sea day with the usual round of trivia, lectures and eating!

Finally, making landfall in New Zealand on the 15th Nov 2022 at the beautiful area known as the Bay of Islands. Our boat was anchored a long way off-shore and we tendered into Waitangi, site of the famous treaty. Since we’d been there already back in 1995, you’ll have to read up on it yourselves!

A short bus ride is required to get to the main town in the area, Paihai, a small place but one which exuded class and calm.

We wandered around for a while, picked up some supplies and then caught the ferry over to Russell, a peaceful and picturesque township set deep in the Bay of Islands, Russell is renowned as a big-game fishing centre and as a holiday town of major historical interest. Its tranquility belies the frantic activity of its wild early days when, as the centre of the first European settlement it was known as ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’. Today the wildest thing is probably the all-day breakfast available at one of the cafes just inland

Originally a Maori village, the settlement was first called Kororareka (Sweet blue penguin) but was renamed Russell after Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the colonies and later Prime Minister of Great Britain. The town is rich in history with a variety of shops and services that do not spoil the old charm. Probably the most interesting place was Christ Church which was built in 1836 and is the oldest surviving church in the country. Even the headstones at New Zealand’s first church have a story to tell…the crew of HMS Hazard seemed to have a had a pretty tough time in Russell as the captain drowned in 1844 and a number of the crew died the following year in an altercation with local maoris. There were memorials to both.

The weather perked up so we ended up walking along the coast back to catch the tender onto the ship, seeing a few birds on the way, including a Variable oystercatcher, an Eastern rosella (parrot) and a beautiful Sacred kingfisher.

The Bay of Islands was not a disappointment and was probably even nicer than we remembered from 1995. Our next stop was Auckland, a thoroughly modern city with some seriously expensive boats in the harbour including, it was rumoured, the prototype of the New Zealand entry for the Americas Cup.

But we weren’t in Auckland to gawp at big yachts, we were there on a mission to prove we could arrange an expedition independently of Seabourn. To ensure the ship didn’t leave without us if we arrived back late our plan was to ensure other people from the ship also participated in our trip, including staff from the Ventures team. This was thwarted by the ferry company having to downsize ships at the last moment and we were the only ones able to board the ferry that morning for the magical island of Tiritiri Matangi. Sharing a small boat with what felt like a million schoolkids and American birders with huge telephoto lenses was a small price to pay for 4 hours on this island, now restored to what it would have been prior to man arriving on the scene. When we first visited in 1995 the facilities were basic and playing bird calls to attract the birds out was allowed (certainly not the case now). Now the island is far better equipped for tourists and educational visits but is still stunningly beautiful. You’re still able to escape into the interior and avoid all other humans. A rare treat!

The main attraction, of course, was the birds. Many are endemic, so only occur in New Zealand and many can only survive on these small island reserves where rats, mice, stoats and other animals introduced by man are absent. The loudest and most obvious is the Tui

But the humble Bellbird deserves a mention after giving us the run around for much of the trip.
We were lucky enough to see some rarities such as the Weka, the Stitch bird, the Rifleman to name but a few.

While waiting for the ferry to arrive, we were entertained by the parties of school children. First the primary school aged boys did an impromptu Hakka and the girls from Auckland Grammar school replied with a moving Māori song. Tradition and customs replayed throughout time. Luckily the ferry left on time and we boarded before the ship left port.

Our final day before a sea day was at the port of Tauranga, gateway to Rotorua, site of a fabulous thermal park. An interesting place as look one way and you see the largest industrial port in New Zealand, look the other and there are fabulous surf beaches. We took a bus out to Rotorua and were taken round the Thermal Valley viewing bubbling mud pools, steam vents, thermal pools along with the constant overriding smell of sulphur. You are not able to get close to anything considered a safety concern but the local Māori’s are allowed to use one of the pools as they have done for medicinal and relaxation reasons for hundreds of years.

Strangely, there was also a Kiwi conservation project ongoing, with viewing of the birds only possible as they trick them into thinking day is night and vice versa as they are nocturnal. We had to walk through a series of darkened rooms to watch them foraging in their enclosures. They are released into the wild from hatched eggs when about 8 months old. They are endangered as being flightless balls of fluff they are vulnerable to dogs, stoats and even rats and mice. They are training farmers with dogs to teach the dogs to ignore the kiwis as they tend to live on farm or agricultural land. Will it work?

After this the day went downhill a bit as unbeknown to us the schedule was changed and our BBQ at the oldest and most impressive hotel in Rotorua, was changed to a buffet lunch in a “boutique” hotel. The best thing were the gardens and view over the lake. In addition, the local entertainment didn’t happen. This meant we had more time to kill so our enthusiastic driver drove very slowly back to the port, stopping us from napping with his constant commentary but he redeemed himself by driving us slowly by the best surf beaches in New Zealand. This 2nd complaint to the destinations team resulted in a minor refund for everyone.

Seabourn need to accept they have a duty to ensure the tours they advertise are the ones we experience. Being told the buffet lunch was dearer than the original BBQ and they had made up the difference is missing the point entirely.

End of moan, onwards to new adventures.

Days 164 – 165 (Nov 12th – Nov 13th) At sea and our failed landfall on Norfolk Island, Australia

The original post was published by mistake as it only had one persons view of theses days albeit interesting bird stuff!

Another day at sea with the usual round of eating, lectures, eating, trivia (currently 3rd), eating, show, early to bed before looking forward to arriving at the duty free Norfolk Island.

Norfolk Island is situated to the east of Australia and north of New Zealand, see here. It has an interesting history and was the destination of many a convict sent to Australia from the UK. One problem with Norfolk Island is that there is no natural harbour and landings are difficult in rough seas. A fair number of passengers had excursions planned on the island, ranging from golf to touring the island, visiting the duty-free shop or taking a boat tour out to Philip island just off-shore. None of these happened as the captain deemed it unsafe to embark on tenders so we were unable to land. It turns out this was his third visit to the island. The previous two had also ended in failure so quite why Seabourn keep this destination on their schedule is a mystery. The 3 Australian Border Force officers who checked our passports yesterday were also due to leave but couldn’t and so will have to fly back from New Zealand. One of them confirmed that only 1 in 10 ships visiting the island manage to successfully land passengers….

However the captain did agree to circumnavigate the island so we could experience it from all angles) but the most impressive thing were the birds, they were everywhere.

Firstly the majestic Masked booby. These are very closely related to our gannet and use the air displaced by the ship to soar alongside, ready to pounce on any flying fish disturbed by the vessel

Masked booby

From the early morning onwards we had White terns flying in synchronised pairs past the ship.

Sooty terns, White-tailed tropic birds and Black noddys were all in evidence plus Red-tailed tropic birds

Later on Wedge-tailed shearwaters became a lot more common and quite large numbers were seen.

The final species was the Black-winged petrel.

Philip island is clearly a good breeding spot for many of these species as when we sailed past there were a large number of birds flying in close proximity to the island.

The island is unique in having pine trees, the Norfolk pine, covering much of the volcanic landscape. One reason for choosing this island was so the British Navy could use the pines to repair or replace the masts on their ships.

One of our fellow guests told us he and his family spent 2 weeks on the island (travelling by air) and found it the most relaxing place they’d ever been as the speed limit is 30mph and there’s literally nothing to do except watch ships trying to put ashore….

The original landing site of convicts, now preserved for posterity
Philip Island

As we were sea bound for the day, the non denominational Remembrance Day service could happen at 11am, rather than 6pm as advertised due to shore excursions. It was well attended with poppies available (the cruise director had brought them from England) and a number of countries were represented. Unfortunately, this meant we had a lot of USA stuff included, including TAPS rather than The Last Post but they did read the Exhortation from British Legion. We will remember them.

Onwards to Auckland.

Days 160 – 163 (Nov 8th – Nov 11th) At sea, Easo (Lifou) & Noumea (Grande Terre), New Caledonia

Two days at sea before arriving in New Caledonia and the usual trivia, lectures and entertainment shows to participate in (or not) was on offer.

On our first night we were informed there would be a total lunar eclipse but unfortunately the weather did not realise we needed a bit of excitement and so the sky remained stubbornly cloudy. The following day we awoke to a tropical storm, the sea was choppy, the wind was fierce, although warm and it was virtually impossible to stay on deck. It was so bad, the caviar and champagne in the pool party (a Seabourn tradition) was cancelled.

On arrival at our first stop in New Caledonia the sun was out and despite a bumpy ride across the bay to Easo, the weather was fine. Easo is the capital of Lifou, the largest and most populated of the Loyalty Islands. Home to around 10,000 Kanak people, it’s famed for two things: a sandy palm-fringed beach that fans out on either side of the main dock, and a very friendly atmosphere. On arrival we walked past the market and small bar, along a road towards the Notre Dame de Lourdes, constructed in 1898 to commemorate the arrival of Catholic missionaries in New Caledonia.

More importantly the church is on a hill overlooking the bay where we anchored and Jinek Bay Marine Reserve, said to offer some of the best snorkelling in the South Pacific. That as may be, it was closed, so we retraced our steps and went down to the beach on the ship side of the island. All the time White-rumped swiftlets hunted around the tops of the palm trees.

White-rumped swiftlets

Walking back we came across some vanilla plants. Shame we are going to Australia or we could have picked some to take home, but due to biodiversity laws, nothing can be taken in to Oz that’s grown anywhere else. Just remember “Nothing to Declare!” and what happens to transgressors.

There was also the usual coconut palms, mango trees and a first prickly pear cactus.

We were treated to yet more local dancing and singing, accompanied by palm leaf weavers making baskets and other things like headbands. The only difference from other tribal dances, were the ferocious looking warriors who reminded us that cannibalism used to be a thing here. Afterwards, time was spent on the beach, snorkelling and keeping out of the ferocious heat.

Day 2 in New Caledonia was in the capital of the province, Noumea, situated on the main island, Grand Terre. With a population of near on 100,000 it’s easily the largest place in New Caledonia. There are a few touristy things to do (aquarium, cultural centre, kayaking and, of course, a beach) but we took a day off and walked round the quite pleasant town helping a few of the local clothes shops ease their cashflow problems. Better still we came across a bustling French cafe and settled down to a long awaited salade de chevre chaud

A depressing and incongruous sight…for some!

The town was quite pleasant and had quite a lot of green space and old buildings, with a cathedral, and colonial buildings telling of the islands history as a penal colony. The bandstand in the square had been built in 1890’s and three times a week the town were treated to a concert put on by the convicts. It was renovated in the 1980’s.

Our flying visit to New Caledonia was over and we embarked for another day at sea before landing for the first time in Australia, on Norfolk Island.

Days 151 – 159 (Oct 30th – Nov 7th) At sea and Fiji: Suva (Vitu Levu), Levuka (Ovalau), Savusavu (Vanua Levu) & Dravuni Island

At this stage of the trip, sea days have their own routine. Everyone seems to have the things they do, in the same order day after day as we all become a little more institutionalised. Good preparation for living in a care home perhaps? Luckily there were some things going on which added a little variety. The first was trivia of course, daily at 12. Our team was unbeaten since mid-September and certain members of other teams made their displeasure very clear. Worse still the host, John, made a couple of mistakes with answers which raised tensions yet further, so this was all good fun as, having won all the prizes twice over, we really didn’t want any more stuff clogging our room.

Secondly, the ventures team, tasked with running walks, snorkel and zodiac tours at certain destinations had been supplemented by a number of experts on birds, sea mammals, fish, navigation and a few other things and they started doing talks on a regular basis as well as holding daily observation sessions on the rear deck.

Halloween came and went during this period. Many guests decorated their room doors and there were parties for guests and the crew. We just went back and watched a film.

More exciting was crossing the International Dateline so overnight we gained an hour and lost a day as the 1st November simply didn’t happen. This put us just 2 hours ahead of Tali in Brisbane and 12 hours ahead of the UK, making timing calls that bit more convenient, or at least easier to calculate.

Finally, food was increasingly becoming an issue. There are 3 restaurants onboard plus a coffee place with sandwiches. The posh restaurant is our least favourite, it is slow and the food is no different to anywhere else plus the room is massive with small windows. The Colonnade is more casual, higher up on the ship, has much quicker service (or buffet on occasion) and has an external balcony so is much lighter. The Patio is down by the pool area and does a small selection of meals but is not so well organised and is limited in selection. There are a limited number of menus so we’ve now been through these several times and it’s getting to the stage where we never really want to go anywhere, except off the ship to eat!

Our first stop in Fiji was at Suva, the capital of Fiji on the island of Vitu Levu. A bustling and multicultural regional centre, Suva apparently has everything you’d expect from a large city, many buildings dating back to the colonial era and parks, gardens, museums, outdoor activities and a vibrant nightlife. Suva rose to prominence when the British moved their headquarters there and cleared the land. On disembarking, however, our destination was not the city but the Colo-i-Suva Forest Reserve, an area which is used by a lot of the locals as the stream which runs through the forest accumulates in several pools as it descends and these are used for swimming.

It is also a birders paradise and we were fortunate that the Birdlife International representative for Fiji, Mark O’Brien, is a friend of the birder on board our ship and he’d kindly agreed to escort us round the reserve. On arrival our group split into the elite birding team, lead by Mark, and the tourists who walked down the path and sat in the pools. Timing wasn’t perfect, it being early afternoon, but Mark teased out a number of birds by the calls and we managed to see a few as well, including the White-rumped swiftlet, a very localised species which breeds in caves and the local parrot, the Masked Shining Parrot, a large bird also known for being very smelly, a feature which has probably saved it from being caught and sold as a cage bird.

For reasons best known to themselves Seaborne had arranged a second gala evening that day, to follow on from the successful event that was held in Seattle. The ship was departing at 8ish so we were rushed onto 4 coaches not long after 5pm and these crawled through the traffic in the city, discharged us into the Grand Pacific Hotel, for what turned out to be a pretty mediocre buffet of Fijian food. This was followed by entertainment

Suva looked a really interesting place, with a massive market which was still going strong when we returned from the hotel, so it was a shame we didn’t have time to explore on foot. Returning to the ship we were greeted by the ships crew and staff who lined up and cheered as we walked through shouting “Welcome back”. Excruciatingly American!

Our next stop, the following day, was Levuka, Fiji’s former capital (until 1877) on the island of Ovalau, ceded to the British in 1874. The Main Street had old colonial buildings in disrepair partly due to its status as a stopover port for ocean ships crossing the Pacific Ocean coming to an end during the 1950s, threatening the settlement with economic extinction. However, in 1964 the PAFCO (Pacific Fishing Company) was established by a Japanese proprietorship, specialising in freezing and shipping canned tuna, mainly to markets in Canada and Europe. A cannery, joint PAFCO-government venture, opened in 1976. Currently, it is the largest private employer on Ovalau Island and tourism plays only a minor role in the island’s economy.

The town was very busy, with a street market

Local island school Canoe racing

The weather alternated between hot and humid and rain showers and we spent some time looking round the town, watched a rugby tournament

and tried the local cuisine..

The backdrop to the town, as in all these islands, is verdant forest, often clothing dramatic mountains. As we left port we sailed past the island of Naingani

Our 3rd stop was Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, and still largely immune to the outside world. The local economy is based on copra, and tall coconut palms are everywhere. Tourism is growing, though, with popular marine activities including snorkeling and diving in the clear seas, kayaking or stand-up paddling. The island is blessed with rivers and waterfalls that invite hiking, tubing or swimming. There are also hot springs and mineral mud baths. The port has a large yacht club and this may have helped add to the prosperity of Savusavu which seemed more affluent than our last stop.

Savusavu harbour

Our day was fully booked with 2 tours arranged by the Ventures team, kayaking & snorkelling in the morning followed by a zodiac tour and snorkelling in the afternoon

Firstly we had to be kitted out:

We took the zodiac over to the beach on a nearby island, towing the kayaks

before elegantly transferring to the 2 man kayaks..

and proceeding up the coast, attempting to assimilate both the instructions we’d received on board on how to kayak (it turns out we had it all wrong on previous kayaking trips) and avoiding an acrimonious divorce! Once we’d reached the snorkelling point we transferred back into the zodiacs and plunged into the clear waters to see the most amazing array of sea life, clustered round a large rock in the bay, it was fantastic.

That afternoon was similar except we had more time in the water, a really good day.

As we left harbour, we passed a local ferry, clearly one which had seen better days

Our one regret was not having time to go ashore to see the steam vents used for both cooking and thermal pools.

Our last stop in Fiji was at Dravuni Island, a tiny (less than one square mile) island set in the midst of the Great Astrolabe Reef in the South Pacific and a rare opportunity to see what life is like for many Fijians. The island is home to fewer than 200 friendly locals. The island has a volcanic core but is mostly made up of a coral atoll, surrounded by living reefs. Many of the locals offer a limited range of goods and services, from colourful wrap-around pareus to cold drinks and massages.

On landing the track leads off the shore, across the spectacular beach onto a single sand road which runs from one end of the island to the other. There are no vehicles here other than boats.

The local primary school is one of the island’s most imposing structures and we were encouraged to go inside and meet the boys and girls who range in age from 5 to 9. Older than that and they go to boarding school on a nearby island. A few of us went in, telling the children where we came from and in return they sang a few songs and danced. Just next to the school was a shelter under which many of the younger people sheltered from the sun and sang songs (sound up)

At one end of the island is a peak which is allegedly accessed via an easy path up to an altitude of 150 feet, which is a complete lie as the track is very steep and extremely high (note, one of our fellow travellers checked this on his navigation app and the height is actually well over 100 metres). It offers breath-taking views over all 4 corners of the island. The sensible one of us, didn’t wear walking shoes so was unable to make all of the ascent in 35c and 90% humidity!

From the top
Andy’s Kilimanjaro moment. He is there!

The island is very green

Prior to going ashore we went on another zodiac tour, this one a little more exciting than the previous day as local politics raised it’s ugly head and caused a few problems for the ventures team. As we were speeding over to one of the many islands in this part of Fiji, approval to land was withdrawn and a new plan was hastily drawn up, aiming to land on another island. Much zodiacing later we arrived at the prospective landing zone to find there was coral all the way to the beach save for a very narrow gap through which it was possible to pass, but only by walking or shuffling through the sand. We anchored and swam from the boat, some people going ashore but many didn’t as it was very difficult to avoid being cut by the coral.

Waiting for approval from the bridge to proceed

The snorkelling was really impressive and a good time was had by the vast majority. On return to the ship we heard our kayaking trip, scheduled for the afternoon, had been cancelled due to “poor weather” but we knew this was more to do with the problems encountered that morning. That night we received a full refund for the trip, presumably demanded by the one or two individuals who were less impressed than the rest of us. As the expedition leader said the next day, if trips like this are only allowed to proceed with zero risk then they become too sanitised and less of an expedition and more of a very boring geriatric day out.

This was our last day in Fiji, a fabulously unspoilt and largely tourist-free place with lovely people. As we were leaving the island the boat’s resident, if unofficial, photographer Bojan, papped us again, much to Helen’s dismay

The moon gave a good performance well after sunset, as we headed to our next destination, New Caledonia

Days 144 – 151 (Oct 22nd – Oct 29th) French Polynesia: Fakavara, Avatoru, Bora Bora, Huahine-LTI, Tahiti, Moorae & Uturoa

The islands of French Polynesia comprise the largest chain of coral atolls on earth. They sprawl across the vast blue South Pacific Ocean encompassing an area the size of Western Europe. All the islands in French Polynesia are derived from ancient volcanos. The more recent islands remain very mountainous and high, the older ones much less so as the rocks have slowly eroded. Coral reefs encircle each volcano and create shallow lagoons protected from the open ocean. The really old islands have no rock remaining above sea level and so consist only of the coral, creating an atoll. The combination of high jagged mountains, lush forests, shallow lagoons, the deep ocean, fantastic weather and warm temperatures results in what must be the most beautiful islands on earth, a true paradise. The history of the islands is well represented by Hollywood and other film-makers. Most early visitors to these islands regarded them as a paradise and many sailors took wives on the islands and stayed. However, not all visitors were enamoured with what they found, the missionaries in particular claimed to be shocked by the very different society they encountered and sought to ban many of the traditional dances due both to the content and lack of clothing. Tattoos traditionally used to celebrate passages of life, family and honouring their gods were also frowned upon.

French Polynesian dance troupe..

The Islands have a very large religious following, dependant on which missionaries got there first and it is estimated 84% of the population are Christian. The largest group are Protestant, followed by Catholic and then Mormons.

Smiley and friendly people greet you everywhere, they give you a flower for your hair, irrespective of which gender you are. The only rule is, it must be worn correctly, on the left if married, on the right if single or looking to meet someone and on both sides if you’ve met someone but aren’t sure!

Our first destination was Fakavara, an L-shaped atoll adjacent to Fakarava’s large lagoon which is designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The people of Fakarava farm coconuts for copra on shore and pearls in the lagoons. They also host the travellers who flock here to bask on the beaches and snorkel or dive in the luxuriant coral gardens along the shore. At the long spit of Les Sables Roses, the pink blush of the sand reveals its coral origin. There is very little to do except snorkelling, sitting on the beach or visit a pearl farm.

We had nothing planned and on what was an incredibly hot day we set off in the general direction of the main beach, hoping to find a cafe, or somewhere we could get a drink. Everywhere was shut probably due to the wedding that was taking place in the highlighted “must see” Coral church, so we gave up, turned round, found a shop, bought some stuff and wandered across the atoll to the windy and much cooler side. Moving back to the lagoon we found a little beach under a palm tree. The ship’s expedition team had lent us snorkels so we were able to cool off whilst swimming over the corals. We had our 1st encounter with black tipped sharks who were feeding on the sandbank at the beach. Luckily we were out of the water as they were a metre long. Later we discovered, they are harmless and stay out of the way and future guided trips had plenty of opportunities to test this theory.

The town notice board was dominated by information on radiation. Being in French it was difficult to interpret the detailed message but the overall message was clear. The French performed hundreds of atomic bomb tests in French Polynesia and it seems as though they may not have been completely open about the radiation levels the population were and are exposed to, see here and here.

The ocean side

The day ended and as we sailed we could watch the sun quickly dropping beneath the horizon

The next day we’d booked a snorkelling trip from the harbour at Avatoru on Rangiroa, Rangiroa is one of the largest atolls in the world. It consists of about 240 tiny islands that create a total length of 180 km which encircle a lagoon. You truly appreciate this geological wonder when you see it on a satellite picture, because you basically only see a white circle in the water. Most islands are only 300 to 400 meters wide and there is no road that connects them. The lagoon covers 1500 km2 and is only about 35 meter deep. It is an immense body of water where sea water floats into via one of the 100 passages in between the islands. It creates a strong swell and gives the opportunity for underwater life to flourish

The aquarium garden was close to the reef edge and the sea was a bit choppy for one of us, so Andy snorkelled and I was left happily on the boat, watching the fish over the side. I was given “fish food” to entice them. It was a lovely afternoon on the water and we were treated to Polynesian songs accompanied by ukuleles (national instrument?) on the way back which became a regular theme of all our trips.

By definition all these islands are surrounded by coral reefs, so how do ships access the safe lagoon without running aground? The answer lies in gaps in the coral caused by freshwater streams from the original island. The freshwater inhibits coral growth so leaving a natural access point used by ships as well as dolphins, sharks and whales wanting to gain access to the shallow, calm and often safer waters of the lagoon. Being on a ship entering one of these relatively narrow gaps knowing one false move could scupper the vessel has to be one of the highlights of sailing in these waters. As the boat approaches the gap…

The water ahead looks very turbulent as the water moves between the shallow lagoon and deep Pacific Ocean. Often pods of dolphins and flocks of seabirds congregate in these gaps as food is readily available

In reality the gap in the coral is deep and very well marked although problems can still occur if there are high winds, for example. Everywhere you look there are fantastic views

In the tropics the sun sets early and quickly so each departure is generally followed by a dramatic sunset

On to probably the most famous Polynesian island, Bora Bora where we had 2 days and an overnight stay. Bora Bora has long been noted for its stunning beauty. A tiny island, less than 20 miles in circumference, Bora Bora is dominated by the castle-like Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia, two volcanic peaks with lush tropical slopes. A protective coral reef encloses Bora Bora, and the lagoon is dotted with colorful motus, or islets. We arrived later in the day so had the chance to watch as we negotiated the coral reefs surrounding the island….

…and caught glimpse of the famous profile of Bora Bora

On our first day we took a catamaran out round the small island adjacent to Bora Bora, passing by the hugely expensive hotel resort

And on to a shallow area where we could snorkel above the coral. The sea was quite rough which made accessing the boat again a bit tricky.

The second stop was where we could swim with sharks and rays

So brave!

Bora Bora is stunning

That night we went ashore and ate at a roadside burger place, albeit one with a difference. The menu ranged from bog standard burgers to steak and roquefort sauce to kebabs and chinese dishes. Chicken and chips was a perfect antidote to the increasingly monotonous menus on board.

On day 2 we made the rookie error of booking a trip at least 50% identical to the one we’d already done. So we returned to the sharks but this time the crew fed them and we weren’t allowed to go in. Feeding is supposedly outlawed but it did attract the frigate birds

And the sharks

Following this we were dropped off on a deserted island in the rain. The air was warm and soon the rain stopped and we quickly dried off. This island was famous for its rays

But the best part was the island itself, exactly like the mental images of an island in French Polynesia

Beautiful women on the beach..

Fresh fruit…bananas, mango, grapefruit and coconut bread prepared by the crew of our boat. As they said, you can’t go hungry in French Polynesia, fruit grows everywhere

That night we went out again, in the wind and pouring rain. But at least it was warm. Our destination was one of the better restaurants on Bora Bora, the St James. The evening was nearly a washout

St James Restaurant. This is not a promotional video

The storm soon passed and we had a reasonable, if expensive, meal, made much better by not being onboard.

Huahine-LTI was our next stop, a much less touristy island. The island has length of 16 km (10 mi) and max width of 13 km (8 mi). It covers a total area of approx 75 km2 (29 mi2) and consists of two main isles surrounded by a coral reef with several smaller islets. Big Huahine (Huahine Nui) is the northern one, and Little Huahine (Huahine Iti) is the southern. The two are divided by a few hundred yards of water. They are naturally linked via a sandspit at low tide. A bridge was later built to connect both Huahine islands.

Our arrival was debatable. Due to arrive at 8am, going on deck to witness the ship going through the entrance in the coral, we seemed to be going round in circles. Asking one of the staff what was happening, we were told the wind and currents were too dangerous to attempt entry and that we might have a sea day instead. A decision would be made in the next 1/2 hour and of course the safety of the ship and passengers was paramount. As this was being relayed over the tannoy system, those of us on deck witnessed a sudden rush in speed and a run at the opening. We made it into the calm bay waters, but would we be able to leave later in the day?

We’d booked a cultural and heritage trip. Again the weather was dreadful, wet, windy but warmish so the highlight of the tour, a walk to a viewpoint, was cancelled and we spent ages listening to our guide whilst standing in the rain and then going to a river to feed huge eels which live there. This is billed as a major tourist event but in reality is exceedingly dull. The island was buzzing as that morning had seen the departure of a major canoe race which usually takes place every year across the islands. That evening we again watched from on high as the captain took us through the reef so yes, we did make it out in much calmer seas.

Tahiti was our next stop, ah the magic of that word! Tahiti is the largest of the Polynesian islands and home to the capital city of Papeete, a delightful blend of cultures. Papeete, meaning the “water basket,” was once a gathering place where Tahitians came to fill their calabashes with fresh water. Today, it is the gateway to the country, and boasts romantic resorts, fine dining, vibrant markets, pearl shops, and boutiques. Tahiti’s mountainous interior is adorned with deep valleys and scenic waterfalls, while the rugged coastal lands are home to fields of tropical flowers, and glorious white and black sand beaches.

We docked in the capital, Papeete but had nothing planned. Helen was under the weather so I jumped ship and following advice from a friend, got a catamaran to a nearby island, Moorae. Another rookie error, forgetting a driving licence, restricted any movement round the island to a few hundreds metres each side of the port so the visit allowed much time for contemplation

The view of the way back was stunning

Tahiti has a number of valleys which scour the landscape and the upper reaches of these are still home to some of the rarest endemic bird species on the island, the problem is knowing about and accessing these sites so we’d been in touch with the Société d’ornithologie de Polynésie to see if they could take us to a breeding colony of the Polynesian swiftlet. However, recent storms had rendered the area unsafe due to landslides so yet again we were thwarted!

Little known to us, the ship was to move that night, to anchor on the other side of Moorae, in Cooks Bay where we were due to go on an ecotour with a research scientist, Dr Michael Poole. The tall, verdant peaks of Moorea, rising from the dazzling blue sea, embody a perfect daydream vision of a South Pacific Paradise. In fact, it’s said the island’s profile was the inspiration for the fictional Bali Hai. A sortie on the local Le Truck open-sided busses along the island’s roads does nothing to deflate the image, passing under great, spreading boughs of breadfruit trees, past extravagant cascades of brilliant bougainvillea and hibiscus, scented rows of pale pastel (really, you sound like a tour brochure Andy!). This was yet another beautiful island, largely undeveloped.

For one of us this was the best tour to date. he took us out to see a group of Spinner Dolphins, a species he has studied for decades. These are the smallest dolphin species and have some unique behaviours, including spinning, as you’d expect

Leaping out of the water

And synchronised swimming

These dolphins spend daytime in the lagoon as this is a much safer place than the open ocean where various sharks lurk. At night they go out to sea as squid species and lantern fish, their favoured prey, rise up from the depths to feed and become prey themselves.

That afternoon we wandered down the road to a restaurant-cafe the likes of which you’d only see in the glossiest of magazines.

Yet again, some great views as we moved on again that evening

Our final stop was at Uturoa on the island of Raiatea.

Raiatea is rich with cultural and historical significance. Believed to be the original birthplace of Polynesia, this legendary island is a secret garden of ancient myths and hidden temples. Her unique and fascinating heritage gives the island of Raiatea an intriguing sense of place (more brochure information!). Raiatea, which translates to “faraway heaven,” was once the cultural and religious center of the Society Islands. Known in legends as Hawaiki, “the homeland,” many cultures believe that this is where the great Polynesian migration began, from which large double-hulled sailing canoes set out to colonize Hawaii and New Zealand.

Our tour took us round the coast to the only navigable river in French Polynesia and the heart of where the Polynesians started their expansion across the Pacific. The area had everything they needed for the journey, wood for the boats, fresh water and enough fresh food for the voyage. Before setting off, they would trek up Mount Tefatua to ask their gods for a good voyage.

The river is supposedly 5 miles long but the only navigable bit seemed to stop just round the corner from the mouth of the river, conveniently near a little shack selling bananas and coconut milk

We were then taken to what can only be described as a communal island, for use by the whole community for parties, celebrations etc. The atmosphere was fantastic, with small family groups dotted around an idyllic tropical island. Robin Hood got an airing

We went swimming and walked around the island, seeing sharks, frigate birds and fish

Fruit was provided before we were taken back to town. The barista on board, Bojan, is a fabulous photographer and he “papped” us as we walked through town

Back on board, this was our last departure before 4 days at sea, crossing the international date line and Fiji..

French Polynesia is very much unfinished business. There is so much we didn’t see, especially the interior of these islands and the wildlife they hold. One day it’d be nice to return and enjoy these islands at a more leisurely pace.

Days 129 – 143 (Oct 3rd – Oct 21st) 7 sea days to Hawaii (Big Island, Oahu, Kauai and Maui) and 6 sea days to French Polynesia

From Victoria, our first stop in Hawaii is at Hilo on the Big Island, a distance of approx 4300 km, if crows flew that far, or 7 days. Days at sea are a great opportunity to do nothing, to read, to look out over the ocean, to attend lectures, dance classes, go to the gym and/or catch-up with boring tasks which should have been done weeks, if not months, before. Making the most of sea days requires preparation and self-discipline otherwise it’s too easy to slip into the habit of allowing the first glass of champagne to control the rest of the day. In our case, the day is structured around the day’s highlight, the trivia quiz, as we’re on the most successful team, having won the last 2 tournaments (correction…3). We now have a vast selection of Seabourn “stuff”, that in our infinite generosity we allow the girls who look after our room to choose what they want. This is at midday, the online app then allows the intervening hours to be filled (or most commonly, not) from a rare item of interest from the timetable of events for the day. As an example of the events available to Seabourn guests: there are myriad possibilities to meet (otherwise known as spend money with…) with the spa team to rejuvenate, improve mindfulness, undergo acupuncture or get rid of those pesky wrinkles. Alternatively, learn to play bridge, or meet with fellow alcoholics at the euphemistically named “friends of Bill W”, or partake in afternoon tea to the lovely tunes of the resident pianist. In the evening there’s often a drinks reception, followed by more music, more drinks, dinner, poolside parties etc etc.

In addition there are lectures from speakers on a range of subjects, shows performed by the resident theatre group and the occasional comedian, magician or ventriloquist.

As we approached the Hawaiian islands bird sightings became more common, with the occasional Frigate bird or one of the 3 species of Boobies which live in the area. These are structurally similar to our Gannet and fish in a similar way, targeting the flying fish disturbed by the ship. In addition shearwaters and petrels can be seen, skimming the waves in gliding flight in their everlasting search for food.

On reaching Hawaii we had 1 day at Hilo on Big Island, 2 days in Honolulu on Oahu, single days on Kauai and Maui and then a final day at Kona, again on Big Island but on the opposite side to Hilo. We had arranged excursions on all but one of these days, leaving one day free in Honolulu. Being in the middle of the Pacific wind plays a huge part in dictating the climate and weather of all the islands and all the islands have a wet side and a dry side, with tropical rainforest cloaking the coasts exposed to the prevailing winds, the opposite side being arid and parched.

Our first tour out of Hilo was in a small van driven by a tour guide from Kona. The big attraction was the visit to the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park where we were promised a walk along the crater rim and views across the still active caldera. En route we were supposed to be stopping at a coffee plantation and a winery but the itinerary changed and we ended up at Rainbow Falls in Hilo, a less-than dramatic water fall just out of town. This was followed by a stop at the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm, or more precisely, the associated farm shop. The next stop was to an art gallery run by an artist who’d moved from Brooklyn whose first action on welcoming us was to hand round glasses of wine followed by lunch in the garden. This was a beautiful location but not quite the attractions we’d been led to expect. Finally we headed up hill to the national park where we stopped at viewpoints, the first where steam was issuing from large holes in the ground, a couple overlooking the crater and the final stop was a lava tube through which we could walk. Good views of the volcano were obtained, although the scale of the crater makes it difficult to capture on film.

As we left the lava tube the van broke down, effectively ending our tour. Luckily, being booked through Seaborn, the ship waited for us to return before leaving. In the end we were only 5 minutes late for the “all aboard “ time.

On day two, now moored in Honolulu, we went on a tour of the North Shore, a coastline of wild surfing beaches, accessed by crossing through the wild and mountainous interior of the island. The itinerary gave the impression that we’d be stopping a various places to be able to take photos and explore the coast but the reality was very different. We drove through the incredibly dramatic volcanic centre of the island without stopping, being encouraged to take photos through the bus window. We went past beach after beach without stopping and finally ended up at a Japanese temple which was pretty impressive but not really what we wanted

We then stopped at a sequence of what can only be described as shopping malls, one linked to a ranch where some of the Jurassic Park films were set, an area of stunning scenery

Another was a pineapple farm where the fruit could be bought in an infinite number of different flavours and presentations. The tour leader, billed as a naturalist and expert on the island, was no such thing and his inane babble, combined with a hugely irritating voice, caused a lot of anger on the coach. We now know a lot about how much motorways cost, golf courses cost, the films made on Oahu, everything except anything interesting.

So our first 2 tours, the first disappointing, the second, hopelessly inadequate, were not deemed a great success and a number of complaints were received by the Seabourn destinations team but things were set to improve.

On Kauai we’d booked on a tour up the river, first to a viewpoint overlooking the river where we saw our first tropic birds nesting in the cliffs.

Followed by a trip up-river to a famous fern grotto, often used for marriage ceremonies. Indeed a couple on board were married at this very place, 37 years previously.

That afternoon, on returning to the ship, we walked into the local town, Nawilwil

The next day saw us docked in Lahaina on the island of Maui, setting off on a tour of the island led by a laid-back Aussie who first took us to a memorial garden set in the fantastic mountains. The garden was designed to remember the various nationalities (Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Polynesian and Portuguese) who came to the island to work on the sugar plantations 100 years ago, the centenary being in 2003. A smaller version of National Arboretum in Staffordshire England.

Our trip then took us to one of the more impressive surfing beaches on the island, complete with a number of large green turtles and a headland conserved for breeding Wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Green turtles

Our final and least impressive stop was at a plantation, now converted to a tourist destination selling all sorts of produce from the island. Most notable was the way that old plantation equipment had been re-used to create features across the estate.

That afternoon we ventured into Lahaina, a nice-looking town with some interesting stores and ice-creams

Our final day in Hawaii was back on Big Island, but in Kona on the dry side of the island. A submarine tour in the morning for one! (One of us not being brave enough!)

Looking out of the window

followed by a zodiac trip along the coast to a protected zone for snorkelling. The water was warm and the enclosed bay was still enough to allow good views of fish, the best being the Parrot fish, a remarkable creature that bites off and eats chunks of coral, extracts any nutrients and expels what’s left, thus creating the sand that makes up the beaches of Hawaii. When snorkelling the crunch of each bite can be heard quite clearly as they munch through the corals on the seabed. The captain of the zodiac was great and she encouraged the least brave one of us to go in snorkelling with a noodle to use as an aid to stop drowning. After initial trepidation in the water, relaxing proved easy and made a good trip great.

The bay was where Captain Cook landed at some stage on one of his 3 voyages in the area and near to where he was eaten for upsetting the natives. Only his bones were sent home (allegedly).

After a poor start, our visit to Hawaii proved to be a good one, we saw 4 of the islands, learned a lot about how they originated, their culture and history. The birds of Hawaii, however, haven’t had such a great time as the majority of endemic species (i.e. species that are found nowhere else on the planet) are no more, killed off by the many animals and insects brought in by explorers and merchants from the west. The most remarkable story concerns the humble mosquito, an insect previously not found in Hawaii but one that now spreads disease amongst the endemic birds of the island. The only reason why any survive is that mosquitoes only live near sea level so species of birds in the mountains are able to survive as the mosquitoes don’t get that far. This makes finding these birds very difficult as they are only now found in the most remote locations. In terms of biodiversity and endemic species, Hawaii was once the equal of the Galapagos islands, but this is not now the case.

Leaving Hawaii for a 6 day sea crossing only one thing lay in our way, the equator and the tradition of the equator crossing ceremony. To say the cruise director, John, is enthusiastic would be an understatement and his deck parties and general demeanour have been consistent in that respect. On the occasion of the reaching the equator, staff and guests not having previously crossed the equator need to be “initiated” and this took the form of a mock trial where made-up misdemeanours were punished by King Neptune by having to kiss a fish, get covered in dye and pushed in the pool. You are transformed from a Polliwog to a more acceptable Shellbac!

We have on board an Expedition team who are hoping to lead some trips in French Polynesia. They have ornithologists, sea mammal and fish experts and a chap whose expertise is in the practical side of being at sea. On sea days the team are available on deck every morning to look for birds & mammals, play with the sextant and discuss upcoming trips.

We are now looking to tomorrow and arriving in Fakarava our 1st stop in “Paradise?”

Days 120 – 127 (Sept 25th – Oct 2nd) The end of our Canadian Odyssey: Wrangell, Misty Fiord, Prince Rupert, the Inside Passage, Vancouver, Seattle & Victoria

From Juneau next stop Wrangell which is located near the delta created by the Stikine River, visited earlier in our trip when we drove down the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in Yukon. This area is very rich in wildlife and famous for the LeConte Glacier. We took a jet boat tour out over the delta to see this close-up. As we approached the sea became increasingly filled with small icebergs (although this is a very loose definition, see this) and our progress towards the glacier slowed as the captain navigated through the icefield, reassuring us that the 3 inch steel plating under the boat would save us from a titanic-like end. This was one of the best trips we’d done as the glacier was calving at regular intervals and the icebergs we encountered were simply stunning in their colouration

Le Conte Glacier

On our way back to Wrangell a shout went up as someone had spotted whales, correctly identified as orcas by Helen. This small family group put on a show for some time

Our route back to Vancouver duplicated some of the northern route but one particular highlight was Misty Fjord which lived up to it’s billing

That evening we continued, past the New Eddystone Rock

A few hours in Prince Rupert were gainfully used in the library to top up our stock of podcasts and series on iplayer before continuing overnight down the Inside Passage, spending the day at Alert Bay.

Alert Bay is adjacent to Telegraph Cove, visited only a few days before, and the Johnstone Strait, home to a hundred or so “resident” orcas, Robson Bight and Seymour Narrows, nemesis of many a ship.

Johnstone Strait

Arriving in Vancouver we decided on a quick visit to the city, jaded as we were by several days partying with an Australian couple on board. This ended in disaster as our hour in Vancouver required a 3.5 hour queue to rejoin the ship despite the promises from ship staff this wouldn’t be necessary. Overnight to Seattle, our first visit to this impressive city and the first stop of the “Grand Voyage” for the 200 or so guests who joined in Vancouver.

All guests travelling through to Sydney had been invited to a gala dinner at Chihuly Garden and Glass, located directly underneath the Space Needle. An impressive location on both counts

Our partying over for the time being our final stop in Canada was in the beautiful city of Victoria, the retirement capital of Canada thanks to the benevolent climate and sea air. Our bus driver describes it as a place for those who are “newly wed, overfed or nearly dead”.

Our 4 month trip to Canada was over. We’d started in the east, zigzagged through the centre, had a fabulous time with family in Winnipeg, gone up north to Hudson Bay and Yukon, dropped into Alaska a few times, returning for the major cities of BC before sailing off into the sunset from Victoria. A truly magnificent country, with fantastic scenery, natural riches and a proud and friendly population. There were many places we missed out on, mostly due to incompetence but also due to problems caused by COVID.

We will be back.

Au revoir