Our 'gap year' had to wait until we were three score years and ten.
Sydney to Vancouver on the Holland America line ship Volendam in April & May 2010 was a part of our 'gap year' world cruise, Southampton UK to Southampton UK, but it was a world tour including cruising that we researched, saved for at least three years plus, booked and enjoyed more than words can express - but I'll try.
We were away from home for nearly six months and missed the worst British winter since 1947. It involved P&O, Holland America, Canadian Railways and Cunard and just one short airflight - the least we could get away with. But this section, reviewed here, was through the Pacific Ocean visiting many islands and it was the the cruising highlight of the whole trip.
Why? In a word - the people. The crew and passengers.
The welcome at Sydney, on arrival on board, was exceptional. My wife uses a wheeled 'walker' to assist her (she has spine problems) and on spotting this a member of staff was assigned to take us to our cabin, an unprepossessing 'ocean view' with no balcony but certainly 25% larger in length and width than similar cruise ships. We might have expected this level of service if we had been travelling in a suite but we were travelling with the hoi polloi and this extra welcoming support was greatly appreciated. The cabins on HA ships are apparently all larger than you might expect from other shipping lines and we were made to feel not just welcome but valued guests. This was our first HA ship so we knew we did not have a confidential record in the purser's office that some regular travellers have - and even unworthily boast about over dinner. Despite that, flowers decorated the cabin, chocolates snuggled up to the ice bucket to prevent them melting and a bottle or two of sparklers wrapped in Irish linen napkins begged us to open them. Our cabin attendants, one male, one female paid us a visit without any implication that we should offer them a tip. In fact they already knew that we had opted for the per diem rate and thanked us in advance for our kindness.
The ship's departure was scheduled for two days hence so we had the luxurious delight of having a waterfront cabin overlooking the iconic Sydney harbour bridge and two days of refined service without any sea-movement beneath our feet. We made the most of it taking harbour trips and a visit to Sydney zoo where a baby elephant had just been born to worldwide media acclaim.
Earlier we had sailed from the Panama Canal down through many pacific islands but had to miss some that had been planned due to the Captain running ahead of a tropical storm. The journey northwards to Vancouver however was less threatening and more relaxing.
We have come to expect gently falling standards of service and food on long cruises as particular food items run out, some with unexpected irony. For example we ran out of oranges in Floridian waters, bananas in the Caribbean and fish in the largest ocean in the world but that's cruising for you. On the Volendam however excellence persisted throughout.
We visited Noumea after 3 days at sea, a very French culture with "15 colours and creeds", we were told. We went ashore under own steam to save funds and found the protestant cathedral at the top of a hill that was well worth a visit. Next came Ils Des Pins' french Polynesian culture. We only had two hours ashore but beautiful beaches and warm seas cried out for a longer stay. Port Vila Vanuatu was interesting but the town was 5 Kms from the port and the humidity drove us back to the ship early in a taxi without air conditioning. Two days at sea and Lautaka followed. There the policemen wore national Fijian uniforms of white skirts with pointed hems - and that was only the men - oddly the women officers wore trousers. Such a friendly and colourful place with seemingly everyone smiling. We sent parcels and cards from the tiny post office and they ALL arrived safely. Dravinu Island came and went as the weather prevented safe tendering ashore and we sailed onto Suva where the greeting on everyone's lips was 'BULA' or even BULA BULA to add emphasis. Certainly a place to return to ... one day!
After crossing the international date line we arrived at Apea in Samoa. We visited author Robert Louis Stevenson's house organised by HA. It cost $US59 each and was very good value. We left the ship at 8.20am in gaily decorated buses with wooden slatted seats that played havoc with less upholstered bums. Fresh coconut drinks were served and the tour guides gave thoughtful and well researched information in the house and about his many books. We returned in time for one of Volendam's finest afternoon teas.
Five days at sea found us in Ohau in the Hawaiian Islands docked at the fine port of Honolulu. We have previously visited the island and the Pearl Harbor experience so we indulged in some retail therapy.
The oldest inhabited island in the archipelago is Kauai and its capital Nawiliwili which produced many a snigger from those who had that turn of mind. It's a beautiful island with no high rise building and a real sense of what Hawaii must have been like when the settlers first arrived. Maui came next and the town of Lahaina, so beautiful but suffering economically as the demand for sugar cane is decreasing. A remarkably large banyan tree, the world's largest, covers the whole of the town square and free buses, with guides, transfer you to beaches and resorts.
Hilo is the place to share a taxi with friends for a tour that is half the price charged by HA if you don't want to do the live volcano. It's the insurance costs that pump the price up apparently. We saw the botanical gardens, a coffee roasting plant and the Rainbow Falls - who needs to see a volcano? Another five days at sea and we landed at Vancouver.
The sea days some people dread in case there's nothing to do, but on the Volendam we were spoilt for choice. Uniquely in my experience we had creative writing and daily play readings with a group of cruising thespians led by arguably the most professional and enthusiastic cruise director and entertainments manager, Anthony Choice. Inevitably he has been promoted to bigger ships in the line now. The musicians on board were excellent, particularly the dance trio whose bass player hailed from a village just a couple of miles from where we live in the British midlands. It's a small world.
As with all artists the stage shows were like the proverbial curate's egg, good in parts. An English singer and impressionist er 'doing' Neil Diamond should never have left British shores and an appalling American comedian with arguably the bluest and most lavatorial repertoire deserved to be put ashore earlier than he was. But the group of touring players and dancers were wonderful. The highlight of the entertainment was, in our view, the presentations by the staff from the Philippines and Indonesia. They got and deserved their standing ovations.
The Volendam is a very pretty ship and will be even prettier after its scheduled refit later this year. The crew were impressive and a particular tribute must be paid to the First Officer who hosted a question and answer session about the ship in a determined effort to improve an already excellent level of cruising service. The email systems were just as bad as the Queen Mary's but we all have an unrealistic expectation of what can be delivered mid-ocean but technology will improve but probably not fast enough for our Internet appetites. Shopping aboard was an improvement upon the British run franchises if only because there was less 'tat' on offer but perhaps this was a reflection of a well-heeled clientele.
Entry into US territory has become a punishment rather than a pleasure when dealing with their immigration service. We felt sorry both for the officers themselves with their unsmiling rituals to perform and the passengers.
Disembarkation is always a poignant experience but we found ourselves assisted to the gangways and the shores of Vancouver with a generosity of spirit that made us really want to return to be served by our splendid Volendam dining room stewards who seemed to work 24 hours a day every day. They even made our departing breakfast a meal to remember. Oh happy Volendam days.