Someone I met recently said that traveling alone is like taking off your old life and leaving it behind you. I certainly felt that way as I abandoned all that was familiar and gave myself over to the belly of the beast. The beast in this instance being “The Largest Cruise Ship to Ever Come Into Australia” – Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas. Local television and newspapers had been trumpeting it’s arrival for several days and retailers were positively vibrating at the prospect of 3,800 potential new customers.
Fifteen stories at the water line and more than a thousand feet long, this floating behemoth dwarfed anything I had yet seen in Sydney and actually became part of the skyline in most places we would visit over the next two weeks.
This was not my first cruise but it was certainly the biggest I had ever undertaken, and I might have been the only person who was not entirely thrilled to be boarding. I’m a self-confessed free spirit and a lover of the road less-traveled, so the prospect of fourteen days of confinement, even on a ship as large as this one, was more than a little daunting. I had also been reading about The Roaring Forties – a descriptive term for the notoriously wild patch of Southern Hemisphere ocean that we would traverse – twice! – in the course of the trip. On the other hand, after several weeks of living out of a suitcase the idea of unpacking for two weeks was definitely appealing and my balcony room was wonderful. I slept most nights with the doors wide open, rocked to sleep by the heaving of the ship and the glorious sound of crashing waves as we plowed along.
And I had these little buddies for company…
This was the first time this ship had docked in Sydney – and it would be the first time in every other port on the cruise – so heading out of Sydney Harbor was not only a new experience for the captain and crew, it was a big deal for Sydneyites as well. “Good day!” boomed our Norwegian captain, “If I can find the keys, we’ll get underway!” And so we did, stirring up mud from the bottom of the notoriously shallow harbor as we pulled away from the Overseas Passenger Terminal.
It was all hands on deck to watch the show.
Fort Denison lies just off of downtown Sydney and is accessible by private ferry. The former penal colony and defensive position, built on a diminutive outcropping of solid rock is now a high-end restaurant and event venue. It’s also an indication of how shallow this harbor is in places.
This is about as perfect a view of the Sydney skyline as I can imagine.
Our departure was a major event and we were escorted by a flotilla of small boats. It was reminiscent of old, black-and-white newsreel footage that I’d seen of the launch of the Queen Elizabeth II. Or maybe it was the Titanic.
A herd of helicopters circled the ship all the way out of the harbor, with daredevil cameramen hanging out of the doors trying to capture the perfect shot for the evening news. This guy in particular must have circled about a hundred times. I wondered how long it would be before he ran out of gas or disk space.
And in case it wasn’t over-the-top enough we were even guided out to the open sea by a pod of dolphins. Cue the special effects!
Our various escorts finally peeled away at spectacular North Head and we emerged out into the Tasman Sea on our own. This would be our last sight of land for a couple of days.
That’s it then. I’m afloat for the better part of two weeks on a ship that now, in open seas seems much smaller than it did dockside. Let the wild rumpus begin! Time to explore. I counted at least eight pools including a number of hot tubs, and a splashdown water park for kids on the sports deck. I was also quick to scout out the spa and made sure I had a couple of appointments booked for our ‘at sea’ days.
The Voyager is a beautiful ship – very sparkly and with a sort of Roman-Greco theme going on. I was intrigued by these statues. A couple of them seemed to be missing critical parts and I think there must be an interesting story behind that.
Prior to this cruise the Voyager had sailed from Asia via Fremantle. On that cruise a rumored thirty percent of passengers had come down with norovirus – a flu-like bug that is pretty common everywhere but particularly on floating incubators like cruise ships. As a result the ship had been completely scrubbed down prior to our boarding. Purell hand sanitzers had been placed at every plausible junction throughout the ship, and crew were at the entrance to every restaurant with big bottles of the stuff. The self-serve feature was suspended in the casual dining room with crew on hand to hand out plates and cutlery, dish out food and pour beverages. Stateroom doors, hand rails, elevator buttons were all washed down scrupulously several times a day and the daily ‘Message from the Captain’ included a reminder to wash our hands often. I occasionally heard passengers grumbling about the situation but overall the precautions were not much of an inconvenience, and in the end they seem to have had good effect. I would hear of only a couple of people being quarantined for two days with ‘a bug’ but there was no major outbreak and by the end of the cruise most of the precautions had been relaxed. I think the Royal Caribbean folks did a terrific job and I’m completely impressed that they were so candid with passengers.
I heard someone describe cruising as ‘like taking a vacation in a shopping mall’. This retail promenade runs down the center of the ship and in addition to a dozen or so handbag, clothing and jewelry shops there were special sidewalk sales daily. I wandered this strip several times every day, most notably first thing in the morning to get to the cafe for my Starbucks latte. Yes! Starbucks! The strip was usually a hub of activity with live music most afternoons, painting demonstrations by the artist-in-residence and photo ops with celebrities like Shrek and Puss ‘N Boots. There’s an Irish pub here with some very good brew on tap and this was also the scene of several fabulous street parties, where we danced the night away to some really terrific live music.
You might be getting the impression that I’m warming up to cruising. It didn’t take long. I thought I might be lonely and that I’d spend my time in one of the two libraries, reading and writing. But I had to eat and dinner turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to make new friends. Booking ‘My Time Dining’ means that you can eat at any time instead of at a set time. And you simply join an available table when you show up so you meet different people each night. There are three formal dining rooms stacked on top of each other, in addition to more casual dining on another deck and an upscale Italian spot by reservation only. I made it out for one of the three formal dining nights and met a lovely family who farm sugar cane in northeast Australia. Being serenaded by all the dining crew on one of the last nights of the cruise was a real highlight.
There are fifteen bars on the ship and I confess to trying out most of them. But within a few days I found myself invariably drawn to the Schooner Bar – a low key spot with a great keyboard player. Having traveled so much by myself I can testify that bartenders are usually very good company, and Edna and Xuemei here were fabulous. I got in the habit of heading to this spot for my four o’clock pot where I could sit and chat with the girls or, if I was lucky I would meet up with a couple of guys who loved to talk philosophy and world events. Xuemei started referring to us as The Three Wisdoms. This also became my after-dinner spot where I made the acquaintance of a fabulous and eclectic group of people who loved good music, dancing and having lots ‘o fun. I recall (I think) closing more than one bar with this group on more than one night. We were a few Aussie’s, a Brit, a Hungarian/Canadian and a Canadian – apparently a potent combination as these folks really led me astray. I thought it was hilarious to learn that on most cruises passengers can pre-order beer or wine cards that provide the equivalent of free refills for the duration of the cruise. They were not, however offered on this route – the rationale being that Aussies drink too much to make it viable for the cruise line! This is our Social Director, Gordon in the Schooner Bar. It seemed like he was everywhere at one time and an absolute bundle of energy and excitement. What a guy.
Finding my way around the ship was a challenge but there are a few clues to help. In addition to very good maps at every stairway and elevator that made it much easier to discern bow from stern and port from starboard, each of the major staircases has a different color carpet. This was particularly helpful after closing time when all I had to do to find my way back to my stateroom was to search out the blue carpeting. People often talk about food when they rave about cruising but I actually lost weight on this trip by not taking the elevator. That meant several flights of stairs up or down as many as eight floors, several times a day. I only took the elevator if I was mildly curious in the wee hours of the morning to know what day it was, as the carpets are changed every day to show the day of the week. It made me think of the “Day of the Week’ undies we used to buy when we were teenagers. This photo is looking down through several floors of the elevator towers.
In addition to the eight or so pools on the sports deck, the ship has a casino, arcade, an art gallery, roller blading course, mini-golf course, ice skating rink, basketball court and a climbing wall. Our Schooner Bar Gang spent a couple of at-sea days competing in as many challenges as we could, notwithstanding near-hurricane force winds off the sports deck. It was gusting so strongly that our golf balls would blow back toward us on the mini-golf course. We persisted anyway, at least one of us being particularly competitive. When it became apparent that we were running the risk of being blown overboard we opted for air hockey and skee ball in the arcade, and went ice skating. And when the wind died down we all got a chance to try out the climbing wall.
I certainly did not take advantage of everything that cruising has to offer. A daily list of events was left in my room each night and I made it out to a few things.
I thoroughly enjoyed a presentation by the ship’s captain about how cruise ships are built – in ‘grand blocks’ – and about the next generation of ships coming into the Royal Caribbean line. And I went to a few of the shows that are staged in the beautiful theatre each night – an illusionist, a Beatles impersonation group and believe it or not, a really terrific ice show that featured several Canadian skaters. I marveled at the courage of those skaters attempting jumps, twirls and lifts on a constantly heaving ice surface.
We even had a wedding on our cruise! This delightful couple were regulars at the Schooner Bar and when we heard about their plans to get married on the cruise we all invited ourselves. They had to time their ceremony around the ship’s schedule and I was really sorry that it took place while I was on shore for an overnight excursion. But I did meet up with them later on their special day to share a glass of champagne and a pizza.
So (this to my friend, Doug who booked my cruise and assured me that I would love cruising) there seems to be a cruise person in here after all. I had a blast. I think I’ll install one of those Purell dispensers in my front hall at home as a pleasant reminder of a wonderful time. Most of the passengers on this voyage were Aussie’s and Brits and I would cruise again with this lot any time, anywhere. These folks know how to have fun! I made wonderful friends and I miss them all.
Cruising is a fabulous way to sample of a number of places without the hassle of getting to and from, packing and unpacking. Getting on and off the ship in our various ports was not as onerous as I expected and the excursions offered by Royal Caribbean were top notch. I’m even considering signing up for the “Frequent Cruiser” reward program to try and obtain Diamond level. I’m such a sucker for status.
We made several amazing port calls in New Zealand that I look forward to writing about in future posts. I can’t wait to re-visit through blogging the astounding two days I spent crossing from Dunedin to Milford Sound through the Land of the Ring. Stay tuned!