Tag Archives: cruises

Shipboard Gingerbread house

Cruising with Santa on the Holland America Cruiseline

Special to Vagobond with 4 original photos © Susan McKee

New Zealand Santa ClausSanta Claus just doesn’t look quite right standing next to palm trees and bougainvillea wearing his red suit trimmed in white fur in 80 degree temperatures. But, the earth’s rotation being what it is, summer begins in the southern hemisphere just as radio stations in the northern are playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Dashing Through the Snow”.

It’s all rather routine to Australians and New Zealanders, of course, but Christmastime Down Under provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to those of us from North America. We’re more used to wearing parkas and boots than shorts and flip-flops as we browse shop windows during the holidays.

Fleeing winter does have a certain appeal, however, so I took advantage of an invitation from Holland America Line to join one of their Australian cruises from Sydney, Australia, and around New Zealand earlier this month.

Cruise Ship ChristmasAbout halfway through the voyage it occurred to me that I could avoid cold weather perpetually by arranging to spend half the year in Oz. Like those legendary surfers pursing the perfect wave around the globe, I could find “Endless Summer” by dividing my time between North America and New Zealand.

While my friends back home were battling sub-freezing temperatures as fall segued into winter, I witnessed spring bursting forth into summer while holiday tunes played in the background.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” blared from loudspeakers as rollerbladers zipped past shoppers on the sidewalk in Napier. “Good King Wenceslas” contemplates snow that’s “deep and crisp and even” as shellers in Akaroa scan the beach for that perfect specimen.

At every port – and there were seven along our route – traditional symbols of the holiday decorated houses and shops. The major department stores in Wellington and Auckland had the usual animated windows with artificial snow, icicle-trimmed houses and all the other traditional markers of the holidays.

Christmas tree in New ZealandEverywhere, there were the usual Christmas trees – the pine varieties (albeit mostly fake) trimmed with ornaments, lights and tinsel. Snowmen complete with black top hats were crafted from metal, adorned with lights and set to guard downtown intersections.

Peppermint candy canes, Christmas cookies, and imported holiday specialties such as Stollen cakes imported from Germany and panettone from Italy filled store shelves – it all seems just like home, until you run into the native New Zealand Christmas trees.

These don’t look at all like their Victorian pine and fir namesakes. Known formally as P?hutukawa, the Kiwi Christmas tree is a type of myrtle often planted along coastal roadways and sidewalks of the North Island as a landscape ornamental – bushy dark green and (usually) stubby evergreen trees that, conveniently, burst forth with crimson blooms in the days leading up to December 25.

My ship, the ms Volendam, was festively decorated for the season, with lavish swags of greenery, red ribbons and glittery ornaments everywhere. The culinary staff explored their artistic side by using gingerbread, icing, gumdrops and other candy bits to create fanciful (but, alas, inedible) mansions and castles. (These are much grander than the usual gingerbread houses because they start with plywood bases rather than cookie slabs.)

Confections abounded on this cruise. Not only were the desserts varied each meal, but there was an ice cream bar offering sundaes and cones open every afternoon. On one evening during the cruise, the culinary staff whipped up a dessert extravaganza with massive ice carvings, chocolate sculptures and all sorts of fanciful sweets served buffet-style at the unusual hour of 10:30 p.m.

I’d not been on a cruise like this one before, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a range of dining opportunities. There was the usual: a cafeteria-style buffet with everything from sushi and salads to prime rib and sandwiches. But there was also a white-tablecloth restaurant with flowers and candles and a menu that varied each day, a small bistro featuring Italian delights — and the Pinnacle. As its name suggests, this was the fine-dining option (with a small surcharge – the other locations were included in the cruise price). Here’s where I found lobster macaroni and cheese, lamb grilled on a skewer, baked Alaska and chocolate truffles served with after-dinner coffee.

Kids (and grownups) celebrating birthdays during the cruise are serenaded at dinner by the mostly Indonesian dining room crew with a traditional Southeast Asian song
(thereby avoiding all the “Happy Birthday” copyright issues).

In fact, there never was a dull moment on board. There was internet access via satellite, game tables for chess and checkers (not to mention a whole cabinet of board games), jig-saw puzzles, jewelry shops, a casino (this was the only indoor smoking area onboard), daily trivia and bingo games, a library, DVDs for the television in the cabins), presentations on everything from “eating right” to the aboriginal culture of Australia, two swimming pools, a hot tub, ping-pong table, spa, art auctions, gym, yoga classes, Tai Chi, religious services and AA meetings.

My personal favorites were the frequent demonstrations in the Culinary Center. Ever heard of Lamingtons? I thought not! This Aussie specialty is a sinfully rich dessert that starts with an egg-and-butter cake dipped in chocolate and layered with icing, whipped cream embellishments such as coconut, banana and honey. I even learned how to create marzipan roses and fold towels into fanciful animals during the demos.

The lure of the cruise for me, however, was the chance to explore both the north and the south islands of New Zealand. Port stops began at Oban on Stewart Island (off the country’s extreme southern tip) and continued at Port Chalmers, Akaroa, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga and Auckland.

Rain interrupted my visit to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, obscuring the signature skyline with fog. By the time I got back on board, I was soaked through.

Unfortunately, the last scheduled stop, Bay of Isles, had to be scrubbed because of high seas. A storm to the north of us meant that we’d need the extra time to steam around the high winds and waves on our way back to Sydney. Total distance round trip? 3290 nautical miles.

(Full disclosure: I was the guest of Holland America Line aboard the ms Volendam earlier this month on its 14-day New Zealand & Australia cruise.)

Flowers in Bordeaux

Tips for World Travel Planning #2

Travel Around the World, huh? You have probabley decided to take a trip around the world and since you are reading this, you are probably looking for some assistance in planning your trip. First let me say this, planning a trip around the world is fun, but it’s not necessarily easy.

towers in SpainThe hardest thing to decide? Where will you go? Sure, you’d like to go everywhere but unless you’re one of those fortunate enough to have big fat bank accounts, that’s not very realistic. The first thing to do is to really dig into where you want to go. There are a multitude of destinations and activities you can do. Which ones? Are you going to ride elephants, camels, or donkeys? Are you into resorts or hostels? Will you be looking for boutique hotels or couchsurfing with local hosts?

The first thing you should do is to sit down and create a top ten list of the places you want to visit. My advice is to first write down everywhere you have ever dreamed of going and cross them out until only your top ten remain. Don’t worry, you may be able to see those other places, but you have to figure out your main route before you do anything else.

Now go to the trip planning tool and see if you can chart a reasonable trip to those places going either clockwise or counterclockwise. Don’t worry about seeing them in the order you placed them. The important thing is to see them, not the order, right? Besides, you don’t want to take long flights or transport and end up doubling back over your journey.

Berber old womanSometimes, a destination just won’t work in a round the world trip. For example a visit to Zanzibar may not work if you want to go to Russia and take the trans-Siberian after visiting Munich and before going to Tokyo. You might be able to make it work, but try to make things easy on yourself.

Once you’ve got your basic route planned out, start reading about the destinations you’ve chosen. You can find a wealth of information on Vagobond and Wikitravel is a great resource or you can pick up guidebooks that cover just about everywhere on the globe in bookstores or on your kindle.

You probably have a good idea of what you want to do in your destinations, but research might just point out some things you didn’t think of. Are you into cultural travel, adventures, or culinary travel? Will you be white water rafting, hiking, biking, roller skating, or scuba diving?

Flowers in BordeauxI know you want to do all those things, but do you have the physical capability? Do you have the equipment? Is the equipment available for rent? Can you afford it? All of these things need to be thought about and written down.

In all liklihood you will be on ‘the tourist trail’ which means you will probably be seeing things that have been written about and experienced by others but if you want to discover new things about your destinations, you will need to get off the beaten trail. It’s not always easy to do.

There are many factors for why touristic places have become touristic. Usually they are easy to get to and they are safe. When you leave the tourist trail, you step away from those factors. One way to find off the beaten path experience is to get online and find the locals at sites like couchsurfing, tripitini, or vagobonding.com. The travel industry offers the easy path if you prefer not to put in the effort of talking with people who live in a place.

Kadikoy Beach Marmara SeaChances are, you are going to be visiting big cities. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but most big cities are pretty similar. There isn’t a lot aside from the cultural attractions that differentiates them. To really experience a place you need to head to small towns, the countryside, or even non-touristic suburbs. Sure, Sultanahmet and Taksim in Istanbul are great, but when you stay in Sisli, you get to really soak in what life in Turkey is like.

For getting around, I think local transport is one of the great joys of travel. Commuter trains, shared cabs, minibuses, bicycles, and the always wonderful feet. Cabs are easy, but you won’t get much more than a ripoff with most of them. Sometimes you meet a great cabby though and…they are usually safe.

too many bags

World Travel Tip – Bag Storage

too much luggageSometimes when you are traveling the world you find yourself in a city that wasn’t necessarily on your agenda. There can be a few reasons for this:

-A layover
-A cancelled or missed flight
-A bus breaking down
-Or maybe just random chance

In addition to having travel insurance, another thing you can consider is making the most of your time in a city or town you didn’t plan on being in. The big impediment to that is usually that you have your luggage or gear with you and you don’t want to lug it around while you explore. Never worry, this vagabond tip will help you to overcome that challenge.

First of all, you should know that most bus stations, train stations, and even some airports offer lockers or bag storage for short term. What that means is that for just a few dollars you can leave your bag in safety and wander around, have lunch, take photos, or just take a nap without worrying what is happening to your stuff.

too many bagsEven if you just need to go out and find a hotel or hostel, this makes things considerably easier. So, what if there isn’t a locker or bag storage?

Easy. Hotels and hostels often offer free bag storage for their guests so that they can check out but not have to carry their bags with them. The secret is that you don’t have to be a guest to store your bag! Just pop into a hotel or hostel and ask them if you can leave your bag with them for an hour, a day, or sometimes even longer. Often they won’t charge you and if they do, it will only be a couple of bucks. To be honest, higher priced hotels tend to be more friendly than most hostels when it comes to this. Frankly, it’s because since hostels are cheaper, the guests get treated worse and as for non-guests, well, you don’t get any sort of respect – generally. So you are better off picking a fancy place than a dive or hostel.

After that you can visit museums, tourist attractions, restaurants, or make arrangements for your next leg of travel without having the bags with you.

Where do you store your bags when you want to explore a place? Do you have favorite places in favorite cities? How much do they charge and how long can you leave your stuff with them?