We liked the Star Princess as we had the Golden and Grand on earlier trips. We did feel there had been some cutbacks, particularly in the Horizon Court buffet and possibly slight reductions in portion size and quality of the dining room meals, since our last Princess cruise 2 years before, but on the positive side the Lido deck ice cream bar is now free, an afternoon cookies and milk round has been instigated and the atrium has been brought alive by the addition of the International Cafe on deck 5., This operates a slightly strange system whereby sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes etc are free but coffee has to be paid for. This seemed odd when coffee is free in the buffet but I am reliably told by my husband and other coffee drinkers that the deck 5 fresh filter coffee was much nicer than the buffet version. The system (other than paying by the cup) was to buy a 'coffee card' for $24 which covers 15 speciality coffees and also unlimited filter coffee and hot chocolate for the entire cruise, so was a good deal even though DH only ever has black coffee.
So no complaints at all about the ship, now on to the ports. We are not lovers of tours and prefer to do our research in advance and explore on our own wherever possible and I must say that the port guides provided by Princess were very good. My husband uses a wheelchair for longer distances so that is also a factor in our choice to 'do our own thing' - we don't like to have to request special arrangements or feel we are slowing others down.
We arrived 4 days early flying in from London with Virgin and stayed at the Sheraton on the Park having got a good advance purchase deal through their own website of 205 Australian $ per night including breakfast. At the time we ere getting over $2 to the British pound but it had dropped to 1.6 by the time we travelled so we were pleased to have booked and paid for our room earlier in the year. The hotel was very nice, maybe a harbourside location would have been better than the city centre, where the Sheraton is located, but it was not too far, about 20 minutes walk to either Circular Quay or Darling Harbour. Some friends from Melbourne flew to Sydney to join us and we had a lovely few days doing all the tourist things and also saw 'The Mikado' at the Opera House which was fantastic, and as the wheelchair lift is in the centre of the building we got a free tour of the backstage area on our way to the accessible seats.
We joined the ship on the Saturday, purposely not arriving at the cruise terminal until about 5pm by which time there was no queue and we walked straight on board. We had booked inside guarantee and been allocated L244 on Lido deck, the location was very convenient for the pool and theatre and we were very happy with it.
New Zealand Fjordland
The second day at sea en route to New Zealand was quite rough and the weather was generally cold and windy for most of our visit to NZ, unfortunately their spring was running late this year. We had to be up early for the sail through Milford Sound but it was worth it - really scenic with snow on the mountains and pretty waterfalls. It was a bright sunny day but really very cold. Later we sailed into Doubtful Sound, Thompson Sounds & Dusky Sound, all very beautiful but Milford was definitely my favourite. A local park ranger came on board to give commentary and was very interesting when we were listening from the cabin but sadly the PA system on deck was dreadful and he was completely muffled - a shame as he spoke for several hours and it would have been nice to be able to hear and see at the same time.
Dunedin, New Zealand
We had organised a hire car in advance through Dunedin Rent a Car ($146NZ including the extra insurance) and were met by a very pleasant lady who showed us to the car, completed the paperwork in a couple of minutes, offered us directions and we were off towards the beautiful Otago Peninsular. I had arranged with The Penguin Place for a special tour and they were most accomodating of my husband's disability. Instead of the usual bus tour and long walk through the hides a lovely chap called Brian took us in a 4-wheel drive vehicle though his family's sheep farm to see the penguin beach from the hills above. It was beautiful countryside and as it was nesting season we were able to see 2 of the rare yellow-eyed penguins on their nests in the hills and also one wandering along the beach. A small blue penguin had been seen earlier but eluded us, but we did see (and smell!)a huge male fur seal on the rocks by the beach - he does not hurt the penguins but several had been killed by sea lions this year. We would have liked to have seen more penguins but Brian was an excellent guide to this lovely natural habitat and clearly loves the wildlife that live there, we thoroughly enjoyed the hour tour (cost a very reasonable $100NZ for the 2 of us) and would thoroughly recommend The Penguin Place as an out of town excursion.
The Albatross Colony is only a couple of miles further on and we did drive there but the road, which has been basically sea level all the way along, suddenly rose up a high cliff-edge and DH (who hates heights) was more interested in getting back down that seeing the albatrosses, which Brian had told us only fly out to sea and never over the land. But if you don't mind a hairy drive it is another beautiful place.
Returning to Dunedin the weather took a turn for the worse and we arrived in town to a heavy rainstorm. It did not last long and we walked around the shops and found the Cadbury's factory - I had originally booked a tour but cancelled it when I found out there are over 200 steps to negotiate. Surprisingly we were not even allowed into the shop without taking a tour. The rest of the town was pretty enough and did have a Scottish feel but a couple of hours there was enough for us.
We returned to the ship about 5pm to find the dock in a complete state of commotion. Apparently the high winds during the storm had snapped a mooring line and the Star Princess was now using side thrusters and being pushed by a tug just to keep alongside the wharf. Instead of a 2 minute walk along the quay we had to board a bus and wait behind about a dozen other buses as they disembarked tour passengers right by the gangway so that nobody was walking on the dock. So nobody was surprised when 6pm came and went and we did not sail, but at about 9pm the captain announced that high winds were preventing us safely leaving port and that tomorrow's call to Lyttelton (for Christchurch) would be curtailed or missed altogether, depending on how the weather situation changed overnight. In the end we did not leave Dunedin until 7am the next morning and spent the day at sea catching up and did not call at Lyttleton at all. This was so sad as one of our main purposes to this trip was to meet with my husband's cousin who lives in Christchurch - it was to be only their second meeting in over 50 years so, while understanding completely the Captain's decision (the entrance to the port of Dunedin is very narrow), we were of course very disappointed.
Wellington, New Zealand
We were greeted by freezing cold winds but at least it was dry, and we walked into town towards the beehive Parliament building (about a mile). There were shuttle buses running to a department store in the city centre ($5 US return ticket) but there were several hundred people queuing and after all the sea days I was glad of a good walk, and the pathway is flat so no trouble with the wheelchair. There are free tours of the parliament every hour but we decided to see some other sights so headed off down Lambton Quay - which is not a quay, it is a couple of blocks inland but lined with touristy shops selling lots of NZ made goods.
Later we walked to Te Papa, the NZ National Museum on the waterfront and spent an interesting couple of hours there, focusing mainly on the Maori cultural area and the colossal squid exhibition. The museum is free (some exhibitions have a charge) and well worth a visit, our only complaint was that the inside was a little dark and we were pleased to get back out in the daylight and icy cold wind.
We wandered back to the ship via some more shops, by accident finding Cuba Street which seems to be the main non-tourist shopping area. I earned my dinner today - we must have walked several miles, Wellington is a nice city, just a shame it was so cold.
Auckland, New Zealand
Thank goodness the weather had improved and it was a pleasant, sunny spring-like day. Our visit coincided with the Auckland Marathon so on leaving the ship (which docks right in the city centre)we followed the marathon circuit the final half mile or so to Victoria Park and watched some of the runners crossing the finishing line. just across the street was Victoria Park market where we picked up some NZ shell jewellery at very reasonable prices.our next stop (up a steep hill, unfortunately)was the Sky Tower. DH would never go up but we watched several people jumping off, not quite a bungee but a freefall controlled by 2 fixed ropes. Definitely not for us, but we met some people on the ship who had taken the plunge and were still in a state of excitement several days later.
From there we walked along Queen Street, the main shopping street, back to the ship. We were not so keen on Auckland, a nice enough city but could have been anywhere in the world, really. And by now I was getting seriously stressed about communication problems which seemed to blight our entire time in NZ. Wifi connection ashore seemed to be nearly impossible (the only one we managed was at the Wellington tourist information office, and all the emails I sent from there immediately bounced back). Our internet package on the ship would not let me send from Outlook Express, only by logging into our service providers' websites, which we had to make do with but at 50c a minute it worked out expensive. Between the 3 NZ ports of call we had tried 6 or 7 internet cafes and been unable to log into either of our email accounts or into my officelive workspace. I know this should not blight a holiday , but I have my own business which a colleague was kind enough to be looking after for me and it was important for us to be in regular contact - I mention this only so that readers for whom communication is important are aware that it might be difficult in NZ. We had to resort to regular use of the ship's wifi, a situation I have never found before in any country.
After a hot and sunny day at sea we arrived into Suva in a downpour, but fortunately by about 10am it had stopped, except for a little intermittent drizzle on and off all day which was not enough to wet you, in fact it was pleasantly cooling.
There are no beaches on this part of the island and it is not the picture-postcard Fiji.Our first impression of Suva was not favourable, but like many cities the port is the worst part, and a 5-10 minute walk took us into the city centre, which was far nicer than my research had led me to expect. We walked first about a mile through town (flat again) to see the President's house from a distance (we arrived just in time for the midday changing of the guard) and then visited the lovely Thurston gardens next door. These also house the Suva Museum but we decided not to visit that but headed back into town, where we finally found an internet cafe from which we could both send and receive emails - what a wonderful relief !! And it was cheap, too. We had exchanged some of our left over Aus & NZ $ with a money changed on board that morning and got what seemed to be a very fair rate of exchange. Most of the shops seemed happy to accept US$ and in Jacks, the main souvenir shop, we were able to pay with NZ$. Jacks runs a free shuttle bus from the port but it is such a short walk it is hardly worth using. I had read about Suva being a high hassle place but I must say that the only place I felt this was in fact in Jacks, where an assistant follows you a pace behind and tells you 'that's a nice scarf', 'that's a nice watch', 'that's a nice ornament' every time you show interest in an item - most annoying. We must have walked in and out of about 50 other shops and experienced nothing but pleasant helpfulness. The Fijian people seemed genuinely lovely. To my shame I was suspicious of the first few people to say 'Bula' (hello) to us, but unlike many other places this was not an introduction to a sales attempt, but just saying hello to a visitor, and was repeated several hundred times by schoolchildren, older men wearing their traditional dark skirts, policemen in their white pointed skirts, and nearly every passer-by throughout the day. Suva is not pretty city but we thoroughly enjoyed our day and would love to return to Fiji one day.
Apia, Western Samoa
It was hot here and very humid, as we left the ship about 10am others were already returning saying that it was too hot to do anything. It was hot but we walked around the harbour to Apia town, passing the famous Aggie Grey's hotel and stopping a couple of times to look at shops and stalls, it took us about half an hour to the tourist information office. From there I had planned to walk out along the peninsular to see the parliament and historic buildings but it did look quite some distance so we settled for a look around a tourist market on the seafront and then crossed over the main street and looked around the local market and shops and also the Catholic cathedral, which was had some nice painted glass round windows.
Later we took a taxi to Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson's home. I had read on the internet that it was a fixed taxi fare of 7 tala (1GBP = 3.5 tala,and local bank officials had been on board that morning to exchange currency). We asked several taxi drivers and they all said it was 15 tala each way for the journey - still very good value but I think like some other ports the price of everything doubles when a cruise ship is in town - we declined postcards at 3 tala each. The taxi ride was still good value, it is not all that far (maybe 3 miles ?) but a pleasant ride up the hillside towards the interior of the island and we saw some beautiful gardens on the way, but the best of all was when we turned into Vailima and followed the long drives lined with tropical trees up to the clearing where the house stands. Admission is 15 tala each (or 7 USD) and the taxi driver was happy t6 wait for us. Admission includes a guided tour, which seemed to leave every few minutes and each room has its own guide to tell you a little about the history - very nicely done. There was also a dance performance on the terrace, I think laid on for the ships tours which kept arriving, but everybody seemed welcome to watch it. on leaving I asked the taxi driver about the beach just beyond the wharf but he did not seem to think it was a good idea to go swimming there, so we asked him to drop us back into town where we visited an internet cafe and then walked back along the nice seafront promenade to the ship. Several people we spoke to later had been to different beaches and the consensus of opinion was that the beaches of Western Samoa were not very good, no doubt still suffering the effects of the tsunami, although Apia itself seemed fine.
Pago Pago, American Samoa
'Pango Pango' (as it is called) had unfortunately suffered far worse and, although they have tried very hard to clear up the town of Fatagogo immediately adjacent to the wharf, a few minutes' walk beyond that led to the devastated area - so terribly sad for the people of this lovely island. Because it is lovely. The fjord-like harbour is surrounded by huge green mountains and in the rare moments of sunshine the water took on the multicolour shades of blue you see in pictures of the South Pacific. Those moments were rare and we dodged tropical showers for most of the day, but enjoyed our visit. Later in the day we walked the other direction (turning left out of the port) and after a few minutes walk you can see the governor's house up on a hill and then arrive at 'Sadies by the Sea' Hotel and an adjacent public beach park. There is a toilet block here (not particularly nice) and a few seats and 'palapa' style sunshades. The beach itself was OK, not the South Pacific beach of my dreams but quite nice sand, although you need shoes for the water due to the sharp pieces of coral, and various other debris which I blames on the tsunami. I did think twice about swimming in an enclosed harbour but after several fellow cruisers took the plunge it was just too much of a temptation to have my first swim in the South Pacific, and it was great -nice and warm, not crystal clear but not too cloudy, and a nice swell as waves hit the harbour entrance - lovely,
Moorea, French Polynesia
We had pre-arranged a hire car for 4 hours via Avis Pacificar (cost 68GBP = $100 US including nil excess (deductible) insurance by booking in advance - would have been about 20% dearer on arrival) to explore the island that was 'Bali Hai' in the film 'South Pacific'. We felt this was a good investment even for the 2 of us, and we were able to invite another couple we had made friends with on the ship to join us, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable day, even though the weather was disappointing. There were a couple of heavy showers in the morning and low grey cloud all day. The car was delivered to the dock (where island tours were also being sold for about $50 each) and we set off clockwise around the island, making several stops including the Moorea Fruit Juice Factory (where a wonderful pineapple aroma greeted us), Club Bali Hai (did not seem a particularly nice hotel, despite the name), 'le Pettit Village' touristy shopping centre and the Intercontinental (lovely hotel, you can just wander in to look at the water bungalows, dolphin & turtles) . The island was very beautiful with amazing volcanic peaks dominating the lush green centre. There were some lovely beaches but these seemed to be dominated by the hotels. Apparently there is a public beach near the airport which we did not find, so no swimming today either. The island had a slightly 'dead' feeling to it, as if it was off-season (perhaps it is in November ?), a lot of shops and restaurants were closed, whether permanently or temporarily we were not sure, one bar owner we spoke to said that he only opens at weekends and did not think it was worth working midweek, even when 2,500 passengers arrived on a cruise ship - what a lovely life !
Tahiti, French Polynesia
At last the sun shone on us in Papeete, the busy city that is the capital of French Polynesia. We arrived at 8pm, just 3 hours after leaving Moorea, to be welcomed by a large troupe of local dancers and musicians. Our plan for he next day was to use the local bus for a ride outside the city (disappointingly most of them are proper buses now - the traditional 'le truck' seem to operate only in the city). We headed for the west coast bus station just behind the market, a few minutes walk from the dock. The first bus to arrive was a no.3 destination Paea about a quarter of the way around the island -that sounded like a nice trip so we paid our 200 franc fare each (about 1.50 GBP or $2US) and jumped aboard. The journey took about an hour (I think roadworks added a good bit to the usual time) and was not as scenic as we had hoped, the first half passing the shops and offices of a typical city. We then joined the coast road but the view was blocked almost continually by hotels and villas. We passed the lagoonarium and a couple of public beach parks and the local passengers gradually got off, leaving us the only ones on the bus. We wondered whether to get off and make our way back but the driver gestured us to stay on and the end of the line was a small but beautiful public park called Grotte de Mara'a and also Grotte Teanateatea and Grotte Vaipoiri, small caves filled with pretty tropical plants and little waterfalls. This was just how we imagined Tahiti, but of course it is only one little spot. No 3 buses seemed to arrive and leave about every 15 minutes and after about half an hour the driver who had brought us waved to say he was leaving and we decided to go back, the only passengers for the first few miles, and when he realised that I could speak a little French he chatted away to us, telling us the history of Tahiti, pointing out the spot where Captain Bligh landed and even stopped to pick me some special 'Flower of Tahiti' that only grow in these islands. The journey back was much quicker and we spent the afternoon exploring the market and shops of Papeete but everything seemed very expensive here, as it had throughout French Polynesia. I would recommend anyone visiting Papeete to get out of the city and see some of the island (several tours were being sold on the dock for about $50).
Bora Bora, French Polynesia
WOW - Bora Bora was beautiful ! Apparently on the ship's last call it had been rough and raining but we were lucky enough to have fantastic sunshine. We had again pre-booked an Avis hire car - more expensive here at 8,800 francs for 4 hours plus 1,800 compulsory fuel payment (in Moorea we had just filled the car before returning it). I had originally signed up for 2,200 francs of insurance, but on arrival found that, unlike in Moorea, this did not eliminate the excess (deductible) but only reduced it from 200,000F to 100,000F, this seemed a bad deal so we cancelled the insurance, making the cost of the car and fuel about 85GBP ($120) for 4 hours. We probably could have done without a car here, in fact, as there was a shuttle bus to both Bloody Mary's and the public Matira Beach for $5US each way, a free shuttle to a pearl factory quite close to the beach and also tours being offered on the dock for $30 - $50, but I had not been able to find out anything definite in advance about this so had opted to play safe and hire a car. Again our friends joined us and it was definitely the best day of the cruise - in fact I would go so far as to say that Bora Bora made the whole cruise worthwhile. Any number of words cannot do justice to the beauty of this island and, especially, its amazing lagoon which seems to continually change between a multitude of shades of blue, green and turquoise. For anyone who has been to the Maldives (our favourite place on earth) the water is similarly fantastic but Bora Bora has the added bonus of a green mountainous interior - just stunning.
Again we drove clockwise around the island's only main road but we stopped so many times to take pictures it took us over 2 hours to cover the 30km to Matira - and at last the South Pacific beach of my dreams ! We spent a wonderful hour there just floating around in the lovely warm, clear water (but do take water shoes, there was quite a lot of sharp coral around) .
Our final call was the legendary 'Bloody Mary's' Bar, which is actually not beachfront, in fact we drove past it several times as we were not looking on the inland side of the road. It is a nice bar, and not so outrageously priced as we had been led to believe (about 500francs for a local beer, 300 for a soft drink, 650 for a bloody mary and other cocktails up to 1,000). It was good to have been there, taken the photos and used the waterfall basins in the restrooms but I doubt we would bother to call there again. It is also very sad that several hotels on the main island of Bora Bora have closed down - I'm not sure why, it must be for economic reasons as it is such a beautiful place I can't believe they would be short of willing visitors. Most of the main hotels now seem to occupy the 'motus', little offshore islands on the reef which look wonderful (very Maldives-like) . It's a shame that Bora Bora is on the other side of the world and so expensive - we would love to spend a holiday there.
Crossing the Equator
As soon as we left Bora Bora the weather deteriorated again, the first of our 4 days at sea was very very wet, very very windy and not really very warm. The following day was better and the traditional crossign the equator ceremony took place so all us 'pollywogs' (including the staff captain, who was a great sport) became 'trusty shellbacks'. The following day brough much better weather but it deteriorated again and the last 2 days before Hawaii were quit rough.
I liked both of our Hawaii ports better than I had expected, even though we docked in Honolulu to a magnificent rainbow which, of course, meant rain. It drizzled on and off all day but did not get heavy until early evening. Our plan for Honolulu had been to go ashore early in an attempt to get to Pearl Harbour in time to get tickets, which research had told us were usually gone by mid morning. However, this plan was thwarted by US immigration, understandably taking place here. Princess tour participants were of course allocated the earliest time slots and ours was not until 9.45-10.15am. A note of caution to anyone on a similar itinerary, we were not told until the day before that we could not leave the ship until after our immigration time so had we booked an independent tour here (which we had considered) we would have missed it.
Immigration went quite smoothly and we left the ship about 10am and, knowing that by then we would stand little chance of a ticket to the Arizona Memorial we decided to save the cab fare and take the public bus. We had docked at pier 22 instead of the expected Aloha Tower but it was not far away. We could have caught the no. 20 bus from just outside the pier but opted to walk a little of Honlulu city first and got the express 'A' bus which took about 30 minutes. There is a lot of building work going in at Pearl Harbour but it will be a nice museum area when finished. Memorial tickets were of course gone by the time we arrived about midday, but we were very lucky in that a kind gentleman who decided not to wait until his 2pm timeslot gave us his tickets. he 2 hour wait passed quite quickly as we looked around the outside exhibits and Arizona museum (the submarine was available to tours but the Missouri is closed until January 2010). At 2pm we saw the film about the terrible events that occurred at Pearl Harbour and were taken out on a boat to the memorial, floating above the still visible Arizona, parts of which still protrude out of the surprisingly shallow water. A very thought-provoking visit.
Leaving Pearl harbour we took a no.20 bus back thought Honolulu to Waikiki. The beach is very nice and, although very commercial, the area was much more tasteful and up market than I had expected. We saw the sunset from the Sheraton hotel, it was nice, if not spectacular, and watched the surfers for a while, then wandered around the shops (most of the shopping centres laid on some hula dancing or other local entertainment) and international marketplace and adjoining Dukes Lane market until the rain really turned heavy at about 7pm, when we took another bus back to the ship to have dinner beefore our 11pm departure. Bus fares are $2.25 each journey (even if you go all around the island), with a free transfer within 2 hours of a paid journey - very reasonable.
Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
Our stay here was cut short as the captain decided to leave at 3pm rather than 5pm to ensure we got through the impending bad weather and arrived in Los Angeles on time. So last tender was at 2.30pm and inevitably it was absolute chaos. From about 1pm the queue stretched the entire length of the town square, and in fact the last tender arrived back about 4pm, so for all that we gained less than an hour of sailing time. To be fair a lot of it was due to US immigration who were hand searching all handbags and frisking everybody as they LEFT the island - (why ????) - but it was a shame we were so rushed as Lahaina was a nice town. We wandered around the main street and shopping centre then went for a swim from the beach near the tender pier (again, water shoes needed) and watched the surfers for a while. Some people took the local bus to the Whalers Village and enjoyed it.
Los Angeles (disembarkation)
The weather whipped up again as soon as we left Hawaii and was quite rough for a couple of days but actually improved as we nearer LA. Disembarkation was running about 90 minutes late due to 'immigration' and also a passenger falling on the gangway early in the morning. But once off the ship it was straightforward to collect luggage and (after a short wait) take a taxi to the Queen Mary. Our plan had been to tour the ship but there was not time so we just sat in the sunshine waiting for our 'Prime Time' shuttle, booked for 12.10. After several telephone calls and promises each time that it would be there in '5 minutes' it got to 1pm and we asked the concierge to call a taxi for us. The cost was more ($75 as opposed to $32 in the shuttle) and I have no idea whether the shuttle ever did arrive but at least we got to LAX airport in time for 2pm final check in for our 4pm flight home. Air New Zealand were offering a 'twin seat' deal so for $60 we got an extra seat between us - money well spent, we thought, and the flight home was good.