Sunday, 8 September 2013

Cruising (again)


This morning we woke with a buzz of excitement in the air.  It was time to re-pack the suitcase after the weekend in Vancouver.  I deliberately planned not to over pack, as I was sure I was going to buy stuff whilst on the trip.  I could have sworn I left the one side of the suitcase empty.  However, it took some effort to close the suitcase this morning.  This is not a good start. 
 We had our most pleasant (yet) border crossing into the USA, seems even the border officials feel the vibe of the holiday in the air.  (Maybe it is still the luck of the ladybird).  It was quite busy, but highly organised the way they get you to sign paperwork to give them all your money in the bank account while on the ship.  You link your room card to your bank account and every time you order a drink or set foot on land they immediately reduce your bank balance!  It took us all together less than 2 hours to be on the ship and into our cabins!  With approximately 820 000 people departing from Vancouver on 236 sailings this year alone, one expect the machine to be well oiled!
Marelise, Jakes, Erica & Hennie
As per usual our planning went haywire, and we ended up with cabins on opporsite sides of the ship.  Well, not sides per se.  One at the front and one at the back.  (Would have loved to impress you with my knowledge of port and starboard, but both our cabins was on the "right" side).  The Norwegian Sun being 258.5 meters long, you almost lose faith when you stand at our side of the passage and know you have to go all that way to the back!   The passage is so long and straight, it creates an optical illusion that you are looking into mirrors reflecting the same passage over and over.  At one stage the crew regaled us with "stupid questions" from passengers, and one question was: "do the elevators go back and forth as well".  Now I understand the question.:-)

Hennie reminisced about the scenes from (the long forgotton tv series) The Love Boat, where the quay was always full of people cheering and throwing streamers as the ship leaves the habour.  We had none of that.  Taking into consideration that during the summer season at least two ships leave the dock a day, somedays as many as 5 apparently.  So our departure was actually a total non-event.  But on the ship the party started with an American barbeque (read grilling of hamburger patties on an open fire), on the deck.  And so the overeating started…
Then we went to our cabin to open each and every cabinet door and marvel at how they maximise the packing space in the rooms!  Pity they could not find the place to have a slightly bigger shower.  By the looks of some people I have seen wandering on the deck, a few wil have a problem fitting and getting clean.  Then we visited by sister's cabin and oohed and aahed about their nice balcony...

We explored the ship, got lost, found a restaurant, got lost, had a beer, got lost, found the cocktail lounce, got lost... You get the picture.  We also tried our hand at Bingo (all time cruisers favourite) and the family made our day by winning $100!  I was so excited, you could have sworn that I have won the money!

Once having left the shores of Vancouver, we entered the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.  The whole next day was just a sea day and we sailed past evergreen islands and glassy fjords.  Because the waters are sheltered from the open ocean by the numerous islands, there is no waves and it is very smooth sailing.  
 


 
 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Vancouver


The feeling that the long awaited holiday has finally arrived became real as we stepped off the plane at Vancouver airport.  Even the damage inflicted to my new, expensive hard shell suitcase by one of the airlines could not dampen our spirits.  I went into my normal, super-saver, to-the-point-of-screwing-myself mode by declaring confidently that we should be able to get to our downtown hotel by means of public transport.   We arrived at our hotel almost 2 hours later (taxi ride 30 minutes), dead tired, having to slog our suitcases over an uneven pavement, 22 street blocks (which felt like 5 km), through the Saturday shopping crown, in unseasonable heat with the sun beating down on our tired and jet-lagged bodies.  And with blisters on both my feet!  We should have taken a taxi…
The receptionist at the hotel remarked on a ladybird sitting on my shirt, telling me it will bring me luck.  Whether it was actually the ladybird or just the idea of looking at everything that happened in a positive view, lucked just rolled in.  Unbelievable our room was available for immediate occupation at 14h00 in the afternoon.  Someone already donated their sky-train tickets from the airport to down town to us for free.  And the weather was absolutely marvellous (bearing in mind it has been raining non-stop until the Thursday before our arrival).

The beaches were packed with Vancouverites desperate for sun (even though the outside temperature was a (cold for a South African) 24C with a bit of chill in the wind). 
We took a stroll through Stanley Park.  This park, at the edge of the city, comprise about 400ha, most of which is natural rainforest.  Another unique feature of Vancouver is the seawall that lines the waterfront.  The total seawall is 22km, of which 9km surrounds Stanley Park.  A very neat future is the path on the seawall being divided in 2 sections.  The half closest to the water is reserved for walkers, whilst the inside line is for cyclist and in-line skates.  They have also implemented a one-way system (can only cycle in one direction), so walkers are save from people on wheels, and those on wheels are (fairly) safe from each other.  The whole city is criss-crossed with bicycle lanes. We immediately fell in love with the city.  No wonder the city is consistently ranked in the Top 5 of best cities to live in by various indexes.


Rock Balancing (or stone stacking) at English Bay
 

Bike path on sea wall

One of the highlights of the trip was crossing False Creek to Granville island to visit the Farmer’s market.  I regretted having breakfast the morning!  There were cherries, the size of apples, lots of other fresh fruits and all sorts of exotic charcuterie items.   We also visited the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first ever Chinese garden built outside of China.  It is an oasis of tranquillity, and was recently named by National Geographic as one of the “Top Ten City Gardens”.  Have to admit I was not that impressed. I think it helps if you actually take one of the tours, where they explain why it is a classical garden.  The worst part is when we realised, after we paid $14 to see one half of the garden, that you can see the other half of the garden for free! (We are probably totally uncultivated, as all the reviews I read raved about the garden, explaining the S14 entrance charge is a “steal”).
Across from our hotel, in Morton Park, we found the Laughing Men art exhibition, called "A-maze-ing Laughter".  It comprise 14 super-sized bronze statues of men in various poses laughing histerically.  It really makes everybody who looks at it smile. 
Laughing men
 

A short walk through a scary, informal hippy flea-market took us to Gas Town, a National Historic Site of Canada.  Gas Town is a mixture of hip contemporary fashion boutiques, restaurants, and visitor orientated souvenir shops.  We had a lovely pasta lunch at the Spaghetti Factory, our first exposure to the excessive portion sizes of North America.

Gas clock
Gastown's most famous (though nowhere near oldest) landmark is the steam-powered clock.  Built to cover a steam grate, part of Vancouver's distributed steam-heating system; the clock was built as a way to harness the steam and to prevent street people from sleeping on the spot in cold weather.  A unique feature is that the clock whistles, instead of using bells, to produce the Westminster chime and to signal time. 
 
 
 
With Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, it has a majestic Olympic torch/cauldron.  Built to look like an ice sculpture, it is truly beautiful.  Unfortunately it is only lit on special occasions.

Finally I received an SMS from my sister.  They have arrived at the hotel.  We were stuck on the hop-on hop-off bus on the other side of town, thus it took a while to get back to the hotel.  I was so happy to see her again!  We had a lovely dinner in a restaurant, overlooking the beach and waiting for the sun to set (which happened only long after we have finished our meal!).

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Cruise Part II

First glimpse of Madagascar  
It promised to be a sweltering hot day on the morning of the 31st when we cruised into the harbour of Madagascar’s Fort Dauphine (named after the 6 year old French prince who would later become Louis XIV, the Sun King of France).

View of Sinfonia - lens misted up due to high humidity
New harbour built by Rio Tinto

 I do not think I would have been able to get Hennie on deck that early if it was not that the competition of the company he works for had a big ilmenite mine there and was actually responsible for building the port where we would dock.  In the past passengers were ferried by means of dinghies to the shore, but thanks to Rio Tinto we could now disembark with dry feet on the newly built ore export port.


Bay of Galleons

Market in Fort Dauphin

Baguettes - previously a french colony

 Madagascar, though rich in biodiversity, is quite a poor country with approximately 90% of its 22 million inhabitants living on less than 2 dollars a day.  The arrival of the cruise boats is thus a big event and you could see the cars streaming to the port to do business as we were still trying to manoeuver into the single berth.  Lots of people became impromptu guides for the day. 



T-bone for anyone?

We did a quick tour of the city.  It was quite dilapidated with pot-holed streets and shacks abound.  We drove through a typical African market and it was amazing to see all the different types of grains and rice on offer.   




Village life

Mr Crocodile


King Julien - ring tail lemur


 

Afterwards we paid a visit to a botanical garden - a virtual Garden of Eden.  Beautiful!  The variety of fauna and flora was spectacular and also saw some of the flesh-eating plants that are endemic to the area.  We were lucky to see two different types of lemurs, out of the more than 100 different species, including King Julien XIII of the Madagascar Movie fame (ring tail lemur).  The beaches of southern Madagascar are not called the Cote d’Azur of the south for nothing.  The finest sand draws you to the clear blue warm water of the Indian Ocean at the Bay of the Galleons.  After a quick stop to buy vanilla pods we were on our way back to the boat for an afternoon nap and necessary "charging of the batteries" for the New Year's party(ies).


Get the party going

Bread sculptures

Food, glorious food

No, he has not yet drank anything!

Count-down to NY!
The New Year’s Eve party was a blast.  We sipped on our bottle of Pongraz, which by the way probable cost close to what you would be paying for a bottle of Dom or Veuve in France.  Since Madagascar is 1 hour ahead of South Africa, we celebrated Madagascar New Year at 24h00, then South African New Year at 01h00, but I am sad to report by the time they celebrated New Year in Italy (02h00) Hennie and I were safely tucked up in bed.

24h00 - 2013 in Madagascar
01h00 - 2013 in South Africa
Going back the ship was going much slower, and it was either that or some kind of tropical storm around Mauritius that caused the swells to grow bigger and everyone, sober or not, developing a silly little side-step.  Sleeping felt like being in a rocking chair.  Obviously the movement of the boat instantly turned the pool into a Lost City Wave pool to the utmost delight of the kids.  I think you would have been able to surf in the pool.  As the cruise director said, “we must be getting closer to South Africa, thus the increase in the number of potholes we are striking”.

Disembarkation was a picture of efficiency, and because we have booked a shuttle to the airport, we were issued light blue labels for our luggage, thus allowing us to be some of the first people off the ship.  By 08h00 the morning we were already at the airport, and met sis and family for brunch before catching the flight home!  It was fun, but “been there, done that!”.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Cruise Part I

MSC Sinfonia
With the wonderful knowledge that only the internet can bring, we headed for the airport knowing that parking in the carport parking lot will cost us slightly less than using the Gautrain – even with the Gautrain’s R1/day parking special for airport users.  Thus being afforded an additional 30 minutes of valuable sleep we set off to OR Tambo for our Second Holiday.  A cruise - something we promised ourselves we will never do!
In comparison with all the tales we heard we did well by only spending one hour in the queue to board the ship, starting to feel the excitement building.  Linked to my extreme claustrophobia and a lack of money we settled for a sea-view suite – unfortunately not a veranda but at least being able to tell night or day without having to leave the room.  It was more spacious than I expected, with lots of small spaces to pack things away. 

Collecting the Pilot
I can also now understand when people say they get lost on the ships.  There are a myriad of lifts and stairs, some taking you exactly where you planned to go, whilst others take you exactly where you do NOT want to go.

After participating in the obligatory emergency lifeboat drill, the ships horn sounded a few frightful blasts and we set off into the sunset.  Well, not quite, it was three o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was still high.  There were no streamers and no crowds with handkerchiefs wiping away tears on the pier, as I remembered from the scenes of the TV show “The Love Boat” (oops, giving my age away).
Fruit sculptures
After recovering from the shock of the price of a cocktail we promptly opened the tab with a “tequila sunrise” and “pink mojito”.  After a few of those we must have sailed into choppy waters as it suddenly became much more difficult to walk a straight line…
With no room to negotiate we have been placed in the second dinner seating, meaning we could only enter the dining room at 20h45.  When you normally have dinner around 18h30 this was quite a long wait.  Looking forward to make new friends and meeting new people at the dinner table, Hennie and I spent a miserable dinner alone at our table for eight.  Whilst next door 4 couples having just met was having a swell time.  Story of our lives...  Seems the second seating was too late for our dinner mates, and they decided to have the buffet, raid the pizza station or settle for room service.
Crew performing a scene from "Ghost" for the Movie Quizz
 
Spectators to the medical airlift
Next morning Hennie and I were having a bit of debate on where the sun rises as I seem to have too good a sleep and not realising its strange to have the sun hanging low on the western horizon at 08h00 in the morning.  Our puzzlement were soon resolved when an announcement was made that the end of the world is still not nigh but that we have turned around late last night and is now heading back to Richards Bay.  This was not happening to me!!!!.  Well, I could count my blessings when we heard that there was a medical emergency on board that required immediate hospital care and that we are heading for the coast on order to have someone airlifted of the boat, and it was not one of us.  This helicopter evacuation was planned to happen at around 11h00 that morning, and there after we will turn around and make like a speadboat to Madagascar to still make our rendezvous there for the morning of the 31st.  
The airlift created quite a spectacle and raised the excitement levels.  Strange how we crave sensation as everyone was on deck to watch and take pictures, moi included.  Had a bit of a chuckle when I heard some women wisely telling her companion that it was lucky that we already had a practice drill for a helicopter airlift shortly after the boat departed – obviously not knowing that was when they picked up the pilot when we left the harbour. 
Country line dance lesson
They day was spent in the sun next to the pool as we were not up early enough to reserve a lounger in the shade.  Due to the speed we were travelling at there was quite a breeze and it did not feel that hot.  Both Hennie and I was covered in 40+ sunblock but still managed to get sunburnt.  But compared to the other lobsters running around we did well and the ship shop was doing a brisk trade in after-sun lotion.

Blue-blue sea
That evening Hennie reluctantly agreed that we can go to the Bingo.   And so a Bingo monster was born.  Hennie absolutely loved it, and it was a fun way to while the time until our dinner seating.  Speaking of which, the second night at our dinner table we met two very young, beautiful, 24 year old women.  We must have been a bit of a disappointment for them as they were hoping for a ship full of eligible bachelors wanting to have fun with them.  I must admit it was a bit of a disappointment for us as well.  There was virtually no topic that we could converse on and after hearing the tale on how the blonde bombshell burst out in tears because on their recent trip to Europe the ugly flight attendants told her her hand luggage was too big for the cabin, and had to be stored in the hold.  But her very previous make-up and hair straightener is in the bag and she would not be who she is without it.  After a lot of tears, and the male flight attendant scolding her for ruining her make-up, they made a plan to keep her and her bag in the same cabin and she could relax.
Phew.