Holland America's ms Volendam Circumnavigation of Australia 14 March-17 April 2010, roundtrip out of Sydney, 34 days with 18 ports of call. We sailed with about 1250 passengers, primarily from the U.S., Canada, Britain, and Australia.
I elected to fly United Airlines to Sydney because I have elite status with them and can enjoy Premium Economy seating and free baggage. I selected to fly via San Francisco because the airport is more compact and better organized than Los Angeles. The flights went well with only minor turbulence and we arrived just few minutes late in Sydney. I had pre-booked online with KST Airport Shuttle for transportation to my hotel. They charge 12.60 AUD (pre-pay) or 14.00 AUD (pay at time of service). There was a little bit of confusion finding my driver in the airport and he had other passengers to drop first, but I find their service reliable and easy to use.
I flew into Sydney two days early in order to have time to unwind, do a little sightseeing, and more importantly to have a cushion of time in case of flights going awry. There were several people who missed the ship in Sydney and had to catch up in another port, and several others who did not have their bags arrive on time for our sailing. The ship was scheduled to sail from Darling Harbour Pier 8 which is over the hill from the more famous Circular Quay area. I wanted to find affordable lodging within walking distance of our pier and I succeeded well with Napoleon on Kent at 219 Kent St., a two-block downhill walk to the passenger terminal. The cost was 150.00 AUD per night (a quite affordable rate for Sydney) for which I got a studio apartment with full kitchenette. Shops, cafes and public transportation were all within a few blocks, although mostly uphill from my location.
For pre-cruise sightseeing I had planned to take the train out to the Blue Mountains but discovered at the last minute that there would be no service that weekend due to repair works on the track. A quick email to Sydney's tourist bureau lead me to Grayline Tours which offered an all day Blue Mountains On Your Own tour for 129 AUD. The tour included return bus transport from a pick-up point a few blocks from my hotel to the terminal and on to Katoomba where I was given an all-day ticket for the Blue Mountain Explorer hop-on/hop-off bus which has 29 stops. The pamphlet they give you is very helpful identifying what is located at each stop and recommending walks between stops, of which I took full advantage. The main tourist spot in this area is Scenic World which offers both cable car and "train" access to the valley. The train is a near vertical ride based on the old line used by miners long ago—a sort of mini-thrill ride—whereas the cable car is smooth and pleasant. On the valley bottom there are several boardwalk trails with some historical displays from the mining era as well as interesting flora and wildlife. For the more athletic there is a trail on the rim leading out to the Three Sisters rock formation.
On embarkation day I walked down to the pier arriving about 10:15 am as check-out time at my hotel was 10 am. There were already quite a number of people waiting in the terminal, some of whom had disembarked and were still waiting for transport. After I dropped off my checked luggage, I was directed to wait outside the terminal where there was some seating; we were told check-in would begin about 11 am. At some point someone came around and passed out group numbers for check-in and handed out immigration forms for us to fill in, but it was closer to 11:30 before we were allowed into the terminal by which time a large group of travel agents had already appeared for a tour and luncheon on the ship. By then things were getting confused. It eventually turned out that those of us who were already Mariners and had done our documents online were suppose to check-in first (Priority Check-in) before Group #1 which meant of lot of line shuffling at the door. More confusion happened mid-day for those of us who wanted to go back into town and reboard later—which way did we go? I got sent back through the whole check-in process again in error. The problem turned out to be locals hired to help at the terminal who were not properly trained. I think there should have been more HAL supervision here.
Once on board it took a while to find someone who could tell me where we could store our hand luggage; staff kept directing everyone straight to the Lido buffet. I finally found the location in a corner of the pool area but there was no one there to staff it; that took contacting several more crew members before someone appeared. Then it was off to a pleasant lunch and walk around the ship while we waiting for the "your cabins are now ready" call. While waiting, though, we heard an announcement telling us lifeboat drill would be at 4 pm even though we were not scheduled to sail until 6 pm. That had several people upset, myself included, as many of us had planned on walking around the city that afternoon. In the end the ship scheduled a second drill the next day for those who missed the first day's event. What was nice was that we did not have to bring our lifejackets nor was roll taken.
I only booked this cruise in late October 2009 and I was booking as a single hoping for the lowest single supplement so my choices were a bit limited. The only lower mid-ship cabins left were next to elevators so I went with a deck 2 inside aft cabin (#2672) which looked to be a quiet location and at a great single rate of about $176 a day. The cabin looked fine upon arrival but the smell—smoke! I immediately went down to the Front Desk to report the problem and to remind them that I had notified the Special Needs department well in advance of my allergy to smoke, but they said they had no record of that. Anyway to make a long story (already reported in detail on CC's Holland America message board) short, it took three days of deep cleaning my cabin, multiple visits to the Front Office, two phone calls to HAL's main office, and the intervention of the my travel agent for them to admit the problem could not be solved (there was a heavy smoker across the hall and the smoke was in the air system). The eventual solution worked out well as they moved me to a nicer cabin, but it should not have taken three days to get there nor should I have been denied an appointment with the Hotel Director which I requested twice. Caveat: if you are allergic to smoke you cannot be guaranteed of a smoke-free cabin on any Holland America ship, so if this is an issue for you look elsewhere.
My second cabin, #1902 deck 1 outside mid-ship, was very nice and huge! There was so much storage I didn't know what to do with it all. For those needing extra storage there were two drawers hidden under the foot of the bed and a padded stool that was hollow with a removable seat. The bathroom had one of those mini-tubs of which I'm not a fan, but they provided a rubber bath mat so it was not slippery to get in and out of. The extra tub space gave me more clothes drying room so that I never needed to get in line at the self-service laundry down the hall. There were only two electrical outlets, one U.S. and one European, on the desk so it pays to bring a multiplex extension cord. I use a CPAP machine by the bed and my cord just barely reached. The bed was very comfortable and I had a small loveseat and arm chair as well. They provided this small padded stool for the desk, but I used the armchair there instead—much more comfortable especially as I had brought my laptop for use in the cabin. Even though I was only about 4 doors down from the elevators there was never any noise problem; there were no crew work areas across the hall. However, since I was on deck 1 there was some engine vibration/humming noise with an occasional tapping/chain noise from below (perhaps a repair shop?), but this never bothered me. This cabin was smoke free although by the end of our voyage there was a lingering smoke smell occasionally in the hallway.
The Volendam is a mid-sized ship with about 1,400 passengers, most of the amenities folks want and nicely decorated. With only nine decks and not a vast length, the Volendam was easy to get around. Many passengers really appreciated the full wrap-around promenade deck for walking. I heard that the ship is due to go into dry-dock spring 2011, but honestly it should have gone this year. Towards the end of our cruise there were often only one-half the passenger elevators operating. There was a small section of cabins portside on deck 1 that was flooded out twice during our cruise, and during a heavy rainfall a "waterfall" suddenly appeared in the ceiling of the Fran Hals Lounge. The crew worked diligently to keep things working as best as possible, but that damp carpet smell never quite left our hallway.
I happen to be a great fan of buffet dining as it's quick and you can have small amounts of several things, mixing and matching as you please. Our Lido buffet manager was the best; he was always keeping an eye on things and any problems were quickly resolved. I especially loved the beef and the staff was always willing to additionally cook my portion if there wasn't any "well-done" already available. Overall there were a lot of choices and my only complaint is that sometimes the side dishes were not as hot as one would have liked. Continental breakfast was served beginning at 6 am and hot breakfast started later. The one miss here for me was the lack of fresh whole berries for my granola or waffles in the morning. Both lunch and dinner had a wide assortment of hot and cold entrees, sometimes with theme specialty bars (e.g. Indonesian, Indian, etc.). The evening dessert buffet choices were limited, but the lunch had a wide range of pastries, puddings, cookies, etc. The ice cream bar was open from 11:30 am through dinner and that was often my choice for sweets. I do wish we had lemonade available in the afternoons in addition to ice tea; it makes a nice treat on a hot day. And milk was only readily available in the mornings; otherwise you needed to request it from the back.
I only ate in the Main Dining Room a few times. I had Opening Seating which I liked as we could go into dinner right at 5:15 pm whereas First Fixed Seating was not until 5:45 pm. Service was fine and the food good. At 3 pm each day the Dining Room offered Tea, which on a few afternoons had special themes. The most popular was the Aussie Tea with local favorites such as Anzac cookies and scones. The Dining Room was also the location of the Mariner luncheons which were scheduled throughout our voyage based on star level. There was no Mariner luncheon on embarkation day because the ship hosted a large group of local travel agents that day (something they repeated in several of our ports).
I ate at the specialty restaurant Pinnacle Grill ($20 charge) just once when the Cruise Critic group got together near the end of our cruise. I was not very impressed. Yes, you got very personal service and the cut of steak was just a bit better than the regular dining venues but the chocolate soufflE was tasteless, and I did not think it was worth the extra charge.
We had two other small dining outlets on the ship. The Terrace Grill offered hamburgers and hot dogs as well as a small salad bar, a taco bar, and pizza. It was not a very attractive set up and there were no drinks, not even water, available so that you had to bring something from the Lido buffet or order from the bar on the opposite side of the pool. The Explorations Cafe next to the library offered specialty coffees and teas for sale and provided free pastries and appetizers. On other cruise lines I've been able to get hot milk for free at the coffee bar (I bring my own special hot chocolate mix) and I was unpleasantly surprised when the man staffing the bar turned me down, quite rudely I might add. My only option for hot milk was in the mornings in the buffet.
There are, of course, several bar areas as well as a Wine Tasting Bar on board but since I don't drink I cannot say much about them. However, I did want to thank the Beverage Manager, Nigel Thomas, who helped organize several meetings for our Cruise Critic group.
Athletic facilities on the ship included the two pools, a fitness center, a basketball court, a small tennis court, and a short jogging track. The fitness center was well equipped and there was a small wood-floored class area that could be used for stretching and yoga. The aft Lido pool was right next to a smoking area so I never got to use that pool. The other pool had a sliding covered roof which gave it some protection during inclement weather. The most popular physical activity on board, however, seemed to be walking around the promenade deck—all ages, all physicalities were out there every day in all weather chugging their way around.
The daily program listed several culinary and craft activities each day but since I never participated I cannot comment on them. Although I do want to note that one of our own Cruise Critic group members, Peter, won the cook-up contest with his special chili. The ship also offered some group games and the team trivia seemed to be the most popular.
The lectures that were offered on board were quite good and on sea days we usually had three offered. From Sydney to Freemantle we had on board two biologists from the University of Tasmania who lectured on flora and fauna and environmental issues; whereas from Freemantle to Sydney we had two retired military officers who focused on military history, in particular World War II. From Darwin to Brisbane we added a special local reef pilot to guide us through the Great Barrier Reef and he provided additional lectures as well. The ship's Tour/Port Director, Chris Fisher, offered port lectures as well as a few history and wildlife lectures of his own. His background happened to be in birding so he helped organize an ad hoc birding group; we met on deck several times to look for sea birds.
I did participate in the computer classes that were offered in a special classroom sponsored by Microsoft. Classes covered the new Windows 7 operating system plus the programs that come with it including web pages, movie making and photo editing. The instructor Kristan was excellent. The classroom was also open for "lab time" for passengers to work on their own photo projects. The Photography Department teamed with the instructor to offer a photo contest in several categories which was quite popular.
The Volendam's library was fantastic with a large selection of both fiction and non-fiction books available for checkout. There were also a large number of travel books for help in planning for this cruise and future cruises. The very comfortable chairs and couches were often full on sea days. There was a large table for picture puzzles, another with a globe and atlases, and board games available. Combined with the library was the internet center which had about 14 computers; wireless was available throughout most of the ship. Internet packages were available from about 25-65 cents a minute. I purchased a 500 minute package thinking that would be more than enough, but discovered that their service was very slow and not always reliable. I ended up having to buy another package later.
In addition to the regular daily activities, the ship occasionally organized a special event. One at-sea Sunday we had a "Market Day" by the pool. The crew decorated small carts and served special drinks and food. The on-board stores had specials flea market style including half-priced t-shirts. When we anchored for an evening in the Great Barrier Reef, they provided a whole tropical paradise setting with a giant floating fountain in the pool, palm trees, and music. That evening was capped off by the arrival of dozens of migrating birds who mistook the ship for an island; they perched all over the top of the Sun Deck.
The Tour Director (called Port Director on most ships) provided us with lectures on every port that included a bit of history with practical information such as docking location, transportation, sights, etc. I really appreciated the fact we did not get the awful "shopping talks" you get on many ships that do nothing but point you to the nearest jewelry store. In addition to the lectures, he would have desk hours each at-sea evening and he was dockside on port days where he would answer questions (or try to). The one frustration here was that on occasion I would be told that this was a new port for them and so they were unable to answer my question. This same thing would happen with the Front Desk; one would refer you to the other, or to Shore Excursions, and back again. There were a few ports where I had more information than they did. I do not believe that a port being new to the ship should ever been an excuse for the staff not having done their homework.
The Volendam had the usual spa and beauty salon offerings but I did not make use of any of them. Personally I love massages but I do not enjoy the high-pressure sales pitch for over-priced spa items that always seems to accompany any service provided so I stopped using and on-board spa years ago.
The Photography Department was quite active on this cruise. They provided the usual port disembark "mug shots," but they were not pushy about it as they are on some cruise lines. The prices for individual pictures, though, were too high I thought so I never bought any. They also offered passengers a chance to create their own book combining pictures of themselves with stock cruise photos. What really appreciated was that in every port they sent photographers and videographers on shore, and from their material they created a two-disk DVD of our cruise. Since my husband had not been able to come with me on this cruise, this DVD has given him a chance to vicariously experience many of the sights I saw.
There was the usual selection of shops, with emphasis on jewelry, and the art auctions. The Front Desk offered currency exchange at a reasonable rate and also sold local stamps which were convenient.
There were just a few children on board and the Volendam does have a Club Hal/Oasis for them to take advantage of.
The Frans Hal Lounge offered the usual evening entertainment series, but I never attended. This was a long cruise so a variety of entertainers were rotated through from various ports plus the ship had its own traveling troupe of entertainers. I did, however, attended the two special shows we had with locals. At Hobart the Royal Tasmanian Police Band came on board for a very rousing performance accompanied by some young local Celtic dancers. And in Cairns we had a local aboriginal provide a demonstration of the didgeridoo.
I did attend the movies quite often and delighted by seeing a number of quite recent films. Popcorn was provided but they always ran out. The theatre seating was all on one level so many folks came early to fight for the few seats with unobstructed views. Each cabin also had a DVD player attached to the television and DVDs were available for checkout at the Front Desk.
Our first day on board found our Shore Excursion manager, Kevin, running ragged as the ship had just found out we would not be able to visit our second scheduled port of Bateman's Bay due to a problem sand bar. Within 48 hours Kevin managed to completely organize all new shore excursions for the new and very small port of Eden—quite a feat.
However, all was not perfect with the Shore Excursion department. Another of our planned ports was Exmouth, a very small town in western Australia, for which pre-booked shore excursions filled very rapidly online. I, happily, got the one I wanted (Glass-bottom Boat Reef Cruise) —or so I thought. Apparently there was some computer glitch along the way and some bookings, mine included, were lost. Even though I had written confirmation of my booking in hand they refused to honor it; instead I was put on a waiting list. And to top that off the staff person (not Kevin) was very rude about the situation. I eventually got another, less attractive time slot for the same tour, but that was due to the fact that they pressured the provider into adding several more trips that same day. The upshot of these additions, however, was that the trip was shortened and we did not get to venture very far from shore. Folks who just went ashore on their own found an independent tour operator who gave them a fantastic trip which was longer and for less money.
Note: Individual Port and Tour information given at end of review
Since I was flying straight home after the cruise, I had arranged in advance to use the ship's transfer to the airport as this meant I did not have to find my bags in the huge pile in the cruise terminal and then haul them to a taxi or whatever. That part worked well as I walked straight off the ship at my designated time and straight onto the bus. However, when we got to the airport our driver had no idea where our bags were located as they had been shipped earlier by truck. There really should have been a HAL representative at the drop off location at the airport to provide directions. Eventually someone found another passenger with HAL tags on his suitcase and he pointed us to the far end of the terminal. Once there we waited in line to retrieve our bags only to discover there were no bag carts available there; they were back on the outside sidewalk where we were dropped off. Again having a representative there to let us know to take a cart with us would have helped greatly.
Then came the wait. Even though my flight was not until 2:30 am I had been given a disembarkation time of 8:00 am. At Sydney the check-in counters do not open until 3 or 4 hours before flight time; in my case it was due to open at 10:50 am. Fortunately I had printed out a terminal map in advance and was able to find the small food court (with Starbucks!) that was hidden away behind the check-in area. Sydney is a very large and busy airport and the lines were long. Thank goodness for my elite status as United's Premier line was much shorter than even the First/Business class line. Once through security I was able to enjoy the Air New Zealand Star Alliance Lounge which offered recliners and hot food as well as an open bar. From there it was smooth flying home via San Francisco.
Just a note for future cruisers: 200 of our lucky passengers who remaining on board to continue on to Vancouver were dismayed to discover that they had to report to immigration on the afternoon of disembarkation day along with the newly arriving passengers to be cleared for the continuing voyage. Some had planned overnight trips out of Sydney and had to cancel at the last minute as this requirement was not announced until our disembarkation talk the day before arriving in Sydney.
Holland America is a wonderful cruise line with large comfortable cabins, good food, interesting enrichment programs, and, for the most part, a nice older, educated clientele. And this particular itinerary was fantastic! It was the best introduction to a vast country as you can imagine. To have done this itinerary by land would have entailed several plane flights and long rental car drives.
That said, however, I simply can no longer tolerate HAL's outdated smoking policy which allows smoking in all the cabins and on verandahs. This policy presents both health and fire hazards for everyone on board. Because of my experience on this cruise, my husband and I cancelled our other Holland America booking for later this year. Instead we've booked a similar cruise with Oceania although, unfortunately it is costing us quite a bit more as we lost any early booking discount as well as our on board credit. If HAL ever decides to change their policy, we will be back because we really do love the cruise line.
Ports of Call
Newcastle, NSW: Newcastle, formerly just a coal and industrial town, is re-inventing itself as a tourist attraction. We docked at the commercial port and were tendered across the Hunter River to the town dock from where you could easily walk or take one of the shuttle buses provided by the town and staffed by wonderful local volunteers who pointed out the sights along the way to three different drop-of points. Avis provided last minute car rentals right at the dock. With a heritage walking map downloaded from the tourism website, I enjoyed the morning walking out the spit to the lighthouse and then around the fort and into the town center where I took advantage of a nice bakery cafe. Many passengers, however, headed directly for the Hunter Valley wine region either with the ship's excursion or on their own. As an extra treat as we sailed out of the harbor at sunset the old fort saluted us with three cannon shots.
Eden, NSW: "The little town and could—and did!" This port was a last minute substitute for Bateman's Bay with its navigational issues. With just 48 hours notice, they provided us with several shore excursions and organized a little open market/fair on the green for us. I took the tour to Ben Boyd National Park where we had a couple of nice walks, one out to the point. We did not see as much wildlife as I hoped in the park, but first time Australia visitors got a kick out of seeing a mob of kangaroos on the golf course as we headed out of town. On the way back the driver took by past a beautiful beach with dolphins playing in the water; I elected to get off here and then just walk over the hill into town. In town the center of attraction is the Killer Whale Museum which many passengers visited before walking down a winding path back to our tender dock.
Port Arthur, Tasmania: This was a half-day stop offering tender service into the historical park; passengers had to pay the park fee if going ashore or be on a shore excursion. Since I had visited the park before I elected to stay on board but I do highly recommend taking a tour as it's the best glimpse of Australia's beginnings as a penal colony available today.
Hobart, Tasmania: We were docked right in town from late-afternoon one day until midnight the next. I had visited Hobart the year before so I knew right where to head first—Salamanca Square which is lined with cafes and small shops. Unfortunately we were not there on a Saturday so we missed the famous open market. Several excursions were offered and I selected the one scheduled to visit New Norfolk, Russell Falls, a winery, and Bonorong Wildlife Park—all sights I had not seen the previous year. The tour turned out to be long drives with rushed stops and an awful lunch. We never stopped in New Norfolk but went to Richmond instead; it's a beautiful historic town with wonderful shops but I had been there before. At Russell Falls we were told it was a ten-minute walk and we only had 25 minutes there. It was a beautiful location that deserved far more time and many of our passengers simply could not walk that fast. For lunch we visited a winery where there was a tasting session (but I don't drink alcohol) and that was followed by a lunch of oysters, sausage, assorted raw vegetables, and dry, tasteless brownies. Another guest next to me and I just had bread and butter—that was it. From there we went to a small wildlife park which was very nice; you could hand feed the kangaroos and get up close to Tasmanian Devils and wombats.
Melbourne, Victoria: Australia's "second city" but my (and many Aussies') favorite. We docked out at Port Melbourne where you can usually catch a tram into town. However, due to a traffic accident in town the tram was down for the morning. A few last minute shuttle buses were found to take us to a drop off point at the Southbank Arts Centre in town, and by mid-afternoon the trams were working again. Melbourne offers wonderful museums, parks, shopping and food so it was easy to do this city on your own. The city provides a free City Circle Tram hitting most of the sights including the famed (and huge) Victoria Market. If you wanted to venture outside of town you needed a rental car or to take one of the shore excursions as it was Sunday and train/transit options were not that frequent. I spent the day in town visiting my favorite chocolate shops, the Sunday arts market, and a Thai Festival being held in Federation Square.
Adelaide, SA: Adelaide strikes that unusual combination of a bit of Old West with multi-cultural enclave into a small city surrounded by parks, museums, and universities. You can have huge grilled stakes in a heritage saloon than walk a block for authentic Chinese food. This city also provides a free circular bus for getting around, but the port is located a good distance outside of town and on our visit the usual train out there was undergoing track work. The ship offered a paid shuttle bus for those passengers not on shore excursions. Having spent time exploring the city the year before, I selected the Hahndorf tour. Hahndorf was one of several German settlements founded in the 19th century in the hills above Adelaide. Unfortunately our visit was a bit rushed as our guide insisted we drive around the city quite a bit before heading up into the hills. I wish the port area had rental car facilities as this would have been a much better option.
Esperance, WA: What a paradise, even if the weather did not quite cooperate. It's a little difficult to fully enjoy pure white sugar sand and gorgeous turquoise water with lightning bolts all around. This was another of our wonderful small town ports, but our only docking option was the commercial port where we were required to take a shuttle bus from shipside a short distance to the town beach park—no walking in the port was allowed. I had pre-reserved a rental car with Avis but had to fight the crowd of "claim jumpers "in the tiny office to get my car. Once on the road we headed out to Cape Le Grand National Park where we encountered said lightning bolts and incredible scenery. On the road in we saw wild emus and kangaroos. Since we cut the park visit short we took in the Ocean Road drive suggested by the tourism website taking us past Pink Lake and the beautiful wild coast land on the other side of town. Many passengers took advantage of the ship's cruises out to Woody Island in the RecherchE Archipelago for wildlife viewing.
Albany, WA: This was a tender port and a slightly larger town than Esperance with a few small historical buildings and museums; it's an old well-known whaling port. I elected to take the Billabong Track excursion which was described as a 5 km walk along the famed track that eventually goes all the way to the west coast. I was a bit disappointed as the walk turned out to be a 2.5 roundtrip and we had those pesky non-stop talkers which meant bird watching and listening to the crashing waves was difficult. Had I known I would have rented a car and done it on my own, but I thought I'd get a longer walk if we were dropped off in one location and picked up in another.
Fremantle, WA: Back to the "big city" feel. Fremantle is the port gateway to Perth, Australia's only large western city; it appears in the glimmering distance almost like the city of OZ. We were docked on the edge of town where one could easily hop on the FreeCat shuttle bus into and around Fremantle. Downtown Fremantle is filled with cafes, bars, and shops; we arrived on a Sunday evening and it was hopping. For those who wanted to head into Perth the train station was a short walk from the cruise terminal and commuter trains left at regular intervals. Also within walking distance was the ferry to Rottnest Island (or Rat Nest as named by the Dutch for the unusually large rodents living there). Being an animal nut, of course I had to go. The quokkas are, in fact, not rodents but related to the other marsupials; they are cute and exist nowhere else in the world. The Rottnest ferry docks right in the village where you can catch the paid Bayseeker bus which circles the island delivering snorkelers, surfers, and hikers to various bays and inlets. As an alternative you can take a wildlife cruise or hire a bike for exploring the island. I elected to take advantage of one of the free historical walking tours offered by volunteers from the old Salt Store.
Geraldton, WA: Now we are beginning to get the "outback" feel, although Geraldton itself is a good-sized town and was an important military base during World War II. This was a tender port and the various rental car agencies in town provided shuttles, although there were far too many people to fit and it was chaotic. A bright spot at the dock was a visit by a wonderful local woman and her golden retriever for whom all pet-starved passengers made a beeline. She said she always brings him down to the dock when a cruise ship appears and he loves all the attention. Once I had my rental car and all my passengers we headed north to Oakabella Homestead only to discover the ship had a "lock" on the place for the whole morning and the owner wanted to charge us $50 a head for morning tea and a tour! Since the ship's excursion bus had not arrived yet, we asked permission to walk around for a few minutes to take pictures and then we left. From there we continued north to the small town of Northampton where we had our much cheaper "tea" at a local cafe and walked around the historic church and other buildings. Coming out of the post office I encountered a local man who asked if we were from the ship (it had been the lead story on the radio news that morning); he then told me about his life growing up in the area and actually knowing Monsignor Hawes who designed and help build the church here as well as the cathedral back in Geraldton. Had I the time I think he would have talked all day. That's what I really love about Australia—the people who are just so open and caring. After Northampton we headed south past Geraldton to the historic settlement of Greenough with its wonderfully preserved buildings. We would have gone to the Hotel for refreshment but we saw the ship's bus just headed there and didn't want to discover we were shut out again. With the heat close to 100 degrees we headed back to town and the ship.
Exmouth, WA: Our smallest and most remote Australian port proved both a disappointment and a small joy. We tendered into a small marina outside of the town center; a few shuttle buses were available. This was the port where the "computer glitch" screwed up the shore excursion pre-bookings. Originally there were only a couple of glass-bottom boat cruise times for the Ningaloo Reef available and they filled quickly. However, due to passenger demand the ship pressured the company to offer several more sailings. As a result our cruise time was shortened (but not the price) so we barely moved away from our beach embarkation point and that, combined with the fact it was coral "spawning" season, meant we saw very little and photography was impossible. Some other passengers got the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks and others went four-wheeling through the national park area. Learning about the town of Exmouth which had been created to service a massive military radar installation and an air base was quite interesting. As with Eden a few town folk brought out arts and craft tables to supplement what the few stores had to offer. But for me the highlight was a local wildlife rescue group who brought along two joeys (baby kangaroos) which we allowed to hold while they took our picture.
Komodo Island, Indonesia: What an Easter morning to awaken in a small bay surrounded by palm-filled islands and pink and gold clouds sliced by a vertical rainbow! The entire island is a controlled national park and passengers were only allowed ashore if they were on a shore excursion or had made special arrangements in advance with the rangers and had written proof of that arrangement. As our tenders were being readied you could watch nearby islanders arriving in their small boats to set up shop for all the potential customers; lots of carved dragons, post cards, and jewelry would be available after our tours. We were met at the tender dock by our guides and handlers (two for each group with long sticks to "manage" any dragons that came too close). We walked a fairly level and not very long trail while our guide talked about the flora and fauna of the island. Half way along two rangers had rounded up a large dragon for us to observe and later back in the small camp area two smaller dragons made their appearance. One got a little excited about all the potential "fresh meat" around and started to charge us but was corralled by our keepers—one reason why all were counseled to never wander off. On backing up from our charging dragon we ended sheltered under a tree until one of the villagers cautioned us as there were two small snakes wound in the branches. A later shore ex group got to watch a feeding session while the independent tour members went on much longer walks to and saw much more wildlife.
Darwin, NT: We arrived amid a cracking thunder storm and drenching rain; it was definitely still "The Wet" up north. We were held on the ship until it was decided if and when various shore excursions would be able to go. I was booked on the longest one, Litchfield National Park, so I was worried, but the Captain eventually agreed to stay in port longer and we left an hour late. We saw no rain the rest of the day. This shore excursion turned out to be another of those "too-long rides/too-short stop" trips and I regretted going. Although the waterfalls were beautiful, we were not allowed to swim in the pools due to seasonal issues in some and not enough time at the one open pool which was a disappointment. I wish I had either rented a car or just stayed in town which was reachable on a longish walk or by shuttle from the pier.
Cairns, Queensland: The ship docked right in town. The terminal parking area was under renovation so you had to walk out to the street to get a taxi as pick-ups dockside were not allowed. I had signed up for the Kuranda Experience tour as the guidebooks said that was the best one-day trip. However, heavy rains a few weeks earlier had wiped out part of the rail tracks and the trip was cancelled. Eventually the ship put together a substitute trip using a bus but many of us elected to just go on our own. Several of us got together and took taxis up to the cable car station which cost $23 per taxi; later we learned that there was an express city bus from town that was a much cheaper option. I'm glad we went very early as by the time the cable car opened the line was huge. The cable car offers the option of two mid-way rainforest station stops on the way up to Kuranda. Each stop has displays and a short boardwalk trail. From the Kuranda station you can walk directly into town or follow both the river walk and/or jungle walks. A more challenging hike to the falls is an additional choice. I did both walks in a little over an hour and finished with a short uphill walk into town for lunch and leisurely shopping. Kuranda is designed for tourists with souvenirs, art galleries, and cafes everywhere. From Kuranda I was able to catch one of the $4 buses back to town. I was very glad to have done this trip on my own; many of the passengers who took the substitute shore ex complained they only had 45 minutes at Kuranda. Back in town it was HOT but I did a few errands and then headed back to the nice air conditioned ship. Many other passengers did reef snorkeling/diving trips at this port and they enjoyed the experience tremendously.
Townsville, Queensland: Townsville has two cruise ship docking locations, one near town and the Sun Ferries pier and the other in the commercial port; we ended up in the commercial port. The ship offered a paid shuttle to town and there were taxis available dockside. I had originally planned to take the ferry to Magnetic Island for the day but got talked into going with some other CCr's to the Billabong Sanctuary. We were going to rent a car but discovered they were only available at the airport on a Sunday and there was no shuttle, so we booked private transport through a local tour company (Abacus) recommended by the Sanctuary. They were late picking us up (they also run airport shuttles) and there was no shade at the pier so we were really hot. But the park was quite nice and we had the opportunity (for money) to have our picture taken with a koala, a wombat, or a crocodile and snake—I opted for fur and the wombat photo is my favorite of the whole cruise. Even though we were late arriving we had more than enough time here and we were glad of the covered porch and snack bar to kill time until our return pick-up.
Hamilton Island, Queensland: We anchored among the Whitsunday Islands and tenders were provided to Hamilton, a resort island with a small tourist town. I had pre-booked the Knuckle Reef tour and was looking forward to my first-ever snorkeling experience as I had read that this particular company handled beginners well. Unfortunately this was another tour where the ship pressured the company into taking more than the usual number and we ended up on a long, crowded boat ride without even enough seats for everyone; it was 2 ½ hours each way to the reef. One treat on the boat, however, was an onboard masseuse. For $40 I got a 20-minute wonderful back & neck massage, but it's not for the shy as this was done right in the middle on the lounge with just a towel as front cover! When all our passengers descended on the pontoon we were given the options of a free semi-submersible and/or glass-bottom boat ride in addition to snorkeling or diving. Because of the size of the crowd the boat rides were shortened (again!). Consensus among passengers seemed to be that the glass-bottom boat was the better choice. Beginning snorkelers were offered a paid class but I opted to try it on my own with mixed results. The company provided all the supplies: stinger suits, masks, fins, and float vests—I think I looked like a short colorful whale after being fully suited up. There were two roped-off areas for snorkeling and steps down to platforms for easy entry (easy that is unless you've never worn fins before). As suggested I used the rope as guideline as I was off—what a wonderful experience. There was a small rescue boat in each area in case you got into trouble as well as look-outs on the pontoon. The paid class group got to go off in a separate area and had much better sightings so I would recommend this option. Lunch was served buffet style upon arrival. The staff at the pontoon was absolutely great; I would highly recommend this tour. We only ending up having about 2 ½ hours out on the pontoon although our tour description said at least 3 hours; I imagine this was due to the greater numbers and longer load time at the ship.
Brisbane, Queensland: We were docked downriver from town but within walking distance of the Brett Wharf CityCat ferry which many of us utilized for transport. Again the ship provided a paid shuttle bus service. Originally I had planned to go to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary with another CCr but she could not go so I took the ferry downtown and elected to take the Hop-On/Hop-Off bus which gave me an inexpensive narrated city tour as well as the chance to stop at the Botanic Gardens for a walk before returning to town where I found a wonderful farmers market in progress. I had planned to visit some aboriginal galleries but the addresses the guide book had provided all turned out not to be extant any more. No worries. By this time of the cruise we were all pretty tired and many of us returned mid-afternoon by ferry to the ship.
Sydney, NSW: "Home" again after traveling a total amazing 8,136 nautical miles! Our itinerary gave us a full day and overnight here before disembarkation. Sydney really is a city to see on your own; there is no need for a shore excursion, especially since we docked this time right in Circular Quay at The Rocks historical district. Within a very short walking distance you have access to Sydney's ferries and the train. Sydney Explorer buses provide two different tour circuits and your all-day pass is good on either or both; there are very few sights that are not located at one of their many stops. Directly across from our dock was the famed Sydney Opera House where you can purchase a one-hour tour for $34 or check to see if tickets are available for any of the performance spaces (drama, ballet, opera, or symphony). In addition to the Opera House tour, I spent the morning doing last minute shopping, walking around the city, and visiting the Art Gallery, which was bit disappointing; I thought the museums in Melbourne and Adelaide much better. After packing that evening, I went to sleep with the lights of the harbor and Opera House framed in my cabin window. What a nice ending.