20 February 2013

New Caledonia

Hubby and I decided to give this cruising thing another try, so on 10 February we left on P&O's Pacific Jewel for 8 sleeps, from Sydney to New Caledonia and back. There were definitely pros and cons for a cruise trip for me.

After a pleasant — if early — train trip from Canberra to Sydney, we got ourselves to the wharf. Here is the Pacific Jewel at Sydney. Big, isn't she?

We had a pleasant surprise when checking in — we'd been upgraded! So we went from being in a two-person room with a smallish balcony, mostly of solid metal (so you couldn't see over it well), to a three-person room with a rail balcony. So that was pretty cool.

At 4 pm sharp, we left dock. Sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and past the Opera House, is always an impressive sight.

That evening we enjoyed a fancy pants dinner at Luke Mangan's Salt Grill — he owns a chain of these restaurants on the P&O ships. Very very good food, if too much of it! This is an additional cost, not included in the cruise fee, but probably about half the price of what you'd pay in one of his on-shore restaurants.

The small circus troupe entertained us several times, tricky to do all those seemingly impossible things on an unpredictably moving ship!


The main downside of our room being changed was the now very long walk from our room at the front of the ship to all the dining rooms at the back ... that's only some of the corridor, too! It would have been nice if there was at least stations where you could make yourself tea and coffee scattered through the ship. For those of us with chronic illness (Hubby and me both), it was often too much walking and a lot of effort.

This was a cake decorating competition, the people had 10 minutes to decorate their cake. The face one was risible. The winner was second from the left.

The P&O Pacific cruise ships are low-market, 'entry level' cruises. So the majority of the passengers are not tertiary educated. There was  — and I know I'm being pejorative here — a very high percentage of people who wouldn't know what 'pejorative' meant. We came across the same issue on our previous Pacific Pearl cruise. We had nothing in common with them.

Most of the activities (the biggest beer gut, anyone?), shows, and movies (Kath and Kimderella, ugh) on offer were of no interest to us at all. If we cruise again, I think we really do need to move up to the Princess line, which is more expensive (what's stopped us in the past) but the ships are smaller, with half the passengers, and much more our scene (classes in ceramics and art history, and string quartets playing, for example). 

So we hid out in our cabin a fair bit. Still. Not a bad place to read a book, hey?

Our room steward was a woman in her early 30s from the Philippines. She was trying to give her two-year-old daughter a better life ... but to do this, her daughter was being raised by her grandmother, and barely knew her own mother. Her mum works at sea for 8 months at a time. Very tough. Again, the command crew and various directors were largely Italian, American, or British, and the 'slogging' staff (cooks, waiters, room stewards) were Indian or Asian. I suppose the lower rates of pay they receive still equate to a better income for them, than what they could earn for similar work in their own countries, but I still find the dichotomy somewhat jarring.

The food in the two main eateries was really pretty good, and certainly plentiful! This photo is from the cafeteria style Plantation restaurant. There was always a good selection of dishes on offer, with salads, bread baked on board, and many choices for dessert. It was all too easy to eat too much. I enjoyed having pancakes every morning for brekkie. Didn't much like the UHT milk for hot drinks, though. An occasional downside was needing to share a table with other people and make small talk. They were all pleasant, but it took energy that we often didn't have. By the last couple of days, I had nearly entirely lost my appetite, just from overeating! Oopsies.

After two days at sea, we reached New Caledonia. The Isle of Pines (Ile de Pins), was our first port. Even after such a short time, I can really see why mariners of old would get so excited at the appearance of land on the horizon!

The little orange boat is one of the tenders, which ferries passengers from the ship to shore. The waiting and trip ashore were pretty quick (unlike on our last cruise). The photo on the right is at the port on Ile de Pins. Very ramshackle, but with a laid back lifestyle.

We only booked on one organised tour this time. This was the absolute highlight of the whole cruise for me. We went snorkelling at the 'Natural Aquarium' (Piscine Naturelle) ... a lagoon with great coral formations and fish that are very used to those huge lumbering hoomans splashing around their home every day. We were a little worried about the requirement for 'fitness' to do the trip, but the walk from the bus to the lagoon only took about 15 minutes, partially splashing through an estuary, and partially through the lush forest along a little path.

When we got there, it was low tide, unfortunately, so the place didn't look as spectacular as it does in others' photos. And it was overcast and drizzling, but warm drizzle. 

This bolshie little guy wasn't so happy about us coming into this home territory (and fair enough) ... he attacked the camera, and — a second after this photo was taken — bit me on the wrist! I think he just got a mouthful of sleeve. I've eaten more fish than fish have eaten me, so I'm still winning. But we did swim out of his way. 

There were thousands of these brittle stars hiding down holes, in the estuary, with just an arm or two sticking out. This one was braver than most.

The bus ride from port to the lagoon took about 20 minutes each way. Hubby and I did briefly contemplate running away to live in a tumble down shack on this lovely island. I was rather sad to see that the only modern buildings on the island were three Catholic churches. While there was only one grubby grocery store, a small hospital clinic, and one dilapidated primary school, for the 2,000 residents. Maybe the church could think about investing in some public works?

The second day in New Caledonia, at Maré, we didn't go ashore. The physical toll of the previous day was rather heavy (but worth it). We had trouble finding a quiet spot on the ship — a common problem — but eventually found that the top deck above the pools was relatively uncrowded and quieter. 

 On the 15th February we got to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. Another cruise ship (P&O's Pacific Dawn) was also docked at the cruise terminal, so we had to dock in the industrial port. This time we didn't need the tenders, thankfully, as we could dock directly in the city.I was rather amused by the sight of this upside down bulldozer ... ooops.

This was an unusual sight: tiny pieces of pumice floating on the shore line. Looked like gravelly sand, which moved with the waves.  

We wandered about for a bit, and eventually found the local markets, which are open daily from about 5 am til noon. 

Taro! The currency in New Caledonia is the South Pacific Franc. One CFP is roughly 1¢ Australian. So 595 CFP is about $5.95 Aussie. The markets were under cover, and had a good selection of both local and imported fruit and veg, as well as seafood and meats. One section was devoted to handicrafts, mostly shell jewellery and suchlike. We had to be really restrained in what we bought to take home, though, as Australian Quarantine restrictions are strict, and animal and plant products are often confiscated.

We went to one of the cafés in the markets and Hubby enjoyed a fantastic and huge bowl of locally-grown coffee, and we both had croissants. Our rough French got us by fairly well (and given what we saw of our fellow passengers, we were more adventurous about using it — they did the 'speak English slowly' thing on the whole). Most Noumeans do speak at least a little English,  but appreciate the effort of visitors in speaking at least a little French.

Hubby had spent a whole summer in Noumea back in the late 1970s. We bumbled about with our poor French trying to figure out the local buses, but in the end we got a taxi out to the Anse Vata beach, which he remembered from his youth.

When sitting on that long narrow boardwalk, a gust of wind blew Hubby's new hat into the ocean. A passing French mermaid rescued it for us!

Gorgeous, isn't it?

After catching the free 'Cruise Ship Hop On and Off' bus (wish we'd known about that earlier!) back into the city, we went over to the Musee de la Ville, which focusses on New Caledonian history over the past 150 years or so. I was hoping to find more about the indigenous Kanak culture, but it really had more of a French focus. This carved shell was one of the few, and in fact may have been carved by French people living in New Caledonia, rather than one of the local Kanaks!

I rather liked this plate featuring two rats on a stick, Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler came to mind! My poor translation reads as Scenes of the life at the Front : Good hunting - Open all the year.

The museum had a lot of delightful French decorative elements, these are just a few.

We chanced upon this sun-drenched tiny courtyard, off one of the main streets, which held a hairdresser's and a delightful tiny second-hand shop, called La Funky Fripe. I could easily have browsed in here for an hour or more, but there are limits to what one can expect from a Hubby! We found a great pair of studded suspenders here for Son, for 1800 francs (about $18). We bought several metres of locally designed fabric for Dotter, too, at a fabric shop we were lucky to discover.

Most of Noumea closes down around lunchtime for a few hours of siesta, so we had some trouble finding a place for lunch. I wanted to go to one of their 'Snack' local cafés, but it wasn't to be. Eventually we chanced upon Café Almatrium, in a small shopping mall, with an appropriately supercilious French patrón. 

I had the Mille feullies d'aubergine au poulet crème de feta salade verte, a stack of eggplant and chicken with a feta cheese sauce, and salad. Not quite the 'thousand sheets' as promised by the name, but still very delicious, with a combination of herbs or spices I wasn't familiar with.

Noumea is a real mix of poor next to rich. A lot of the houses, shops and buildings are quite ramshackle, sitting next to fancy hotels and gleaming French fashion shops on the main streets. There seemed to be high youth unemployment amongst the indigeous Kanak population. Rastafarian culture is also popular amongst them, which surprised me. Lot of dreadlocks and green-yellow-red hats and t-shirts. There was graffiti and tagging everywhere, walls, picnic tables, benches ... Widespread stench of open sewerage in the streets, too. 

After lunch we visited a bookshop, and found a cookbook of New Caledonian recipes in English, and a lovely book of aerial photos of the country.

My crippling foot pain (a long term problem for me) finally took its toll, and we retreated to the ship. I wish we could have looked around further, and got up to the Tjibau Cultural Centre, but it was not to be. I hope that one day we can go back to New Caledonia and stay for a good week or two, and see more of this beautiful place.

So the ship turned around, and we headed back for Sydney. Two sea days ... we spent some hours enjoying the excellent cover music of the husband Andy and wife Debbie rock and blues duo. Andy said I was the first person who had ever knitted at one of their gigs — score! LOL.

On Saturday evening we were invited to the Captain's Cocktail Party, which much less exciting than we had imagined. Not an intimate affair, there were a few hundred of us, packed into their theatre. It was really an opportunity to promote further cruises to the passengers who had done more than one cruise, and thank past customers. They gave bottles of champage to the 'most travelled cruisers' ... Third Prize was a couple with 28 cruises. Second Prize was a woman with a bit over 30 cruises to her name. The First Prize was quite shocking - two elderly brothers who were on their 101st cruise! Good grief.

We didn't actually get to meet the captain at all. But we got all dressed up, and they did give us free drinks, so that wasn't nothing. Photos with the captain were extra, so we took our own dodgy ones.

I did find the constant push to spend more rather wearing. Food was free if you ate at one of the two main eateries (Plantation cafeteria and the Waterfront restaurant). Tea, coffee, juice and water were the only free drinks. While you ate waiters would be roaming and constantly asking if you wanted to buy a drink (soft drinks, mocktails, and alcohol were all extras).

If you ate anywhere else on board, like the café, it cost (less than on shore, but still ...). The onboard spa sounded quite lovely, but was very expensive. They took our photos quite a few times, without really giving us much choice in the process, and we would have to pay to get them. There were art auctions every day (of quite awful kitsch artwork, too, on the whole), but they were pitching to the wrong market. Well, most of the passengers did like the artwork (which speaks volumes), but who was going to fork out an extra $1,000 for artwork? Wrong market for a bargain cruise.

We had some issues in our cabin too with grey water, at times, looked like some machine somewhere was polluting the water supply around our room. So we ended up drinking the bottled water (which cost us extra) as we didn't fancy drinking this. Sometimes after a shower the white towels would be quite grey after we got dried! But it was an intermittent thing.

Still, despite the crowds and noise, and the other negatives, it was still an enjoyable trip, and we certainly would like to return to New Caledonia. Neither of us had any sea sickness, and liked the rocking movement of the ship. It is refreshing to get completely beyond the reach of the internet, email, and phone (well, you could pay for the internet, but at exorbitant rates!). On Monday we returned to Sydney, and then got the Countrylink train to Canberra. It was good to be home, and see the human and furry puppies!