This review includes information on both our March 7, 2017, New Caledonia & Vanuatu cruise and on our 4-night pre-cruise stay in Adelaide, Australia. The cruise portion of this trip gave us the opportunity to visit five new ports and dive at several outstanding dive sites. The land portion allowed us to tour three of Australia’s premier wine regions.
We combined this cruise with the Emerald Princess’ March 18 New Zealand cruise; I have written a separate review for that cruise.
CRUISE ITINERARY: NEW CALEDONIA & VANUATU (11 DAYS)
Sydney, Australia; Noumea, New Caledonia; Mystery Island, Vanuatu; Vila, Vanuatu; Champagne Bay, Vanuatu; Luganville, Vanuatu; Sydney, Australia
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I was hoping to acquire flags from New Caledonia and Vanuatu.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. We have cruised to or toured all seven continents, primarily in the Americas and Europe. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, on board activities, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including web links to tourist information sites and maps.
TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
In general, we prefer DIY port tours, independent tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members, or shared public tours. However, we will take Princess tours when the logistics or cost make that a better option; we did not take any Princess tours on this cruise. These are the tour operators we used for this trip:
Adelaide, AU: SeaLink (www.sealink.com.au)
Adelaide, AU: Premium Wine Tours by Scott Ninnis (premiumwinetours.com.au)
Noumea, New Caledonia: Fernandos Tours & Transport (www.fernandos-tours.com/tours.html)
Vila, Vanuatu: Big Blue Scuba Diving (bigbluevanuatu.com)
Luganville, Vanuatu: Aore Adventure Sports (aoreadventures.com)
PRE-CRUISE TOUR IN THE ADELAIDE AREA
TUES, FEB 28: RDU TO DFW TO SYD (ARRIVE THURS, MAR 2)
Note that USA citizens visiting Australia must obtain an ETA (www.eta.immi.gov.au/ETAS3/etas) online before leaving the United States. Also, Australia has extremely strict biosecurity regulations; be sure to declare anything that might be a problem on your Incoming Passenger Card (www.agriculture.gov.au/travelling/arriving-in-australia#declare-it). These cards will be handed out on your flight to Australia and the flight crew will warn you not to take any food off the plane.
We flew American to DFW and Qantas to SYD. The pillows and blanket on Qantas seemed nicer than on other recent transoceanic flights (American, Delta). The seats were also a bit better; however, we were still glad that we brought along our Therm-A-Rest Travel Cushions (www.thermarest.com/seating/travel-cushion) and Wrap-a-Naps (www.wrapanap.com). The food was decent: we were served dinner (3 choices) and breakfast (2 choices) plus between-meal snacks (candy/cheese/fruit) in the galley. A variety of complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were available but those who wanted something alcoholic besides beer or wine might have a wait to be served or be forgotten entirely.
Sydney was on Australian Eastern Daylight (AEDT), which is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST). Alternatively, you could say that AEDT is eight hours behind EST by the clock and a day ahead by the calendar. John and I had made a slight effort to pre-adjust to the time change but only managed to move our bedtime and wake-up time forward an hour. We decided it would work better to combat jet lag if we tried to stay awake as long as possible at the beginning of the 17-hour nonstop flight from DFW to SYD and to sleep as much as possible during the last part.
WED, MAR 1: DAY LOST TO INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE
THURS, MAR 2: SYD TO ADL
Our flight left DFW late so we arrived in Sydney 45 minutes behind schedule. USA citizens over 16 years of age holding an ePassport (with a chip in the cover) can scan their passport at a SmartGate kiosk (www.border.gov.au/Trav/Ente/Goin/Arrival/Smartgateor-ePassport) and get a ticket. There are special immigration lanes for those who have obtained this ticket. The ticket is simply inserted in a turnstile and the passport holder looks at a screen to have his/her photo taken; if the photo matches his/her passport photo, the turnstile opens and he/she is cleared to enter Australia. This worked perfectly for me but apparently John did not look at the camera long enough and had to go to a live agent to have his passport photo verified. Nevertheless, we made it through immigration quickly.
After that, it was hurry-up-and-wait for our luggage. The plane was an Airbus 380 and many people had three pieces of checked luggage. Our bags finally came out and we could proceed to the customs inspection. This time, John had no problems but I was randomly picked for extra screening: I had to go through the line for people with items to declare and have my bags sniffed by a security poodle.
After finally clearing customs and immigration, we had to exit the International Terminal (T1) to reach the Qantas Express counter and recheck our bags to Adelaide. Even though we still had 45 minutes until the next flight, it was too late for our bags to make that flight; we were rebooked on a flight 2-1/2 hours later. We went through security again and took the complimentary shuttle bus to the Qantas domestic terminal (T3) to wait for the flight to Adelaide. While we were waiting, I found a bank ATM and used our CapitalOne debit card to obtain Australian currency. The exchange rate was much better than on our previous trip: US$1 = AU$1.30 (versus AU$1.08 in 2012). Of course, the ATM only gave out large bills, so I bought a couple of candy bars to get some change in case I needed it for the bus in Adelaide.
We gained a half hour on the two-hour flight to Adelaide, putting us on Australian Central Daylight Time (ACDT)—15.5 hours ahead of EST (or 8.5 behind by the clock). We caught the city J1X bus located past the taxi rank (www.adelaidemetro.com.au/Timetables-Maps/Special-Services/Airport-services) to our hotel. There was a ticket machine at the bus stop that accepted either cash or chip-and-PIN credit cards (one-way fare AU$3.40 pp). The bus driver was very helpful in explaining to each passenger the best stop for his/her hotel and announced the stops when he reached them.
We had booked four nights in a queen room at the Comfort Hotel Adelaide Riviera (www.adelaideriviera.com.au), which is located on North Terrace directly across the street from the distinctive blue building of the SAHMRI, a medical research facility next to the new Royal Adelaide Hospital. This is a standard budget hotel—small rooms but clean and in a convenient location. The room had a mini-bar with an empty shelf for guests’ own items; a tea kettle; TV; air conditioning; two extra pillows; shampoo, conditioner and shower gel dispensers in the shower; hand soap, hand lotion and shaving cream dispensers by the sink; two towels, two face cloths, a hand towel and a bath mat; shower cap and sanitary bag. Breakfast was not included in our rate (AU$148.75/night) but there was a bowl of complimentary apples in the lobby.
Over the years, we have learned that the best way for us to overcome jet lag and reset our internal clocks is to get outside for some sun and mild exercise. Adelaide has a free City Connector bus service and a free City Tram (www.adelaidemetro.com.au/Timetables-Maps/Special-Services/Free-City-Services); those services have stops near the hotel. However, we decided to walk about 1.2 mi (1.9 km) to the botanic gardens.
The Adelaide city center is bounded by North, South, East and West Terraces. It is a straight shot down North Terrace to the botanic gardens, near the intersection with East Terrace. However, we detoured into a large shopping area, which includes Australia's first pedestrian mall, Rundle Mall (rundlemall.com). This area contains a number of interesting landmarks, such as sculptures and 19th-century buildings. We stopped at the tourist information center for some maps and checked out the grocery stores for later.
We learned at the tourist office (www.cityofadelaide.com.au/explore-the-city/visit-adelaide/) that not only was the month-long Adelaide Fringe arts festival (second only to the one in Edinburgh, Scotland) happening but also the week-long Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Writers’ Week were about to start. To top it off, a four-day car race, the Clipsal 500 Adelaide, was going on just east of the city center in Victoria Park. No wonder the mall and surrounding streets were packed with people! As we got closer to the botanic gardens, we could hear the roar of the race cars.
The well laid out Adelaide Botanic Garden (www.environment.sa.gov.au/botanicgardens/visit/adelaide-botanic-garden) is more of a traditional Victorian garden rather than a collection of plants from all over Australia, like the one in Sydney. Among many other areas, there are a rose test garden, a palm house, a large wetlands exhibit and a striking pavilion housing rain forest plants. We spent about two hours here before heading back to the grocery to pick up some roast chicken and potato salad for supper. In South Australia, beer, wine and spirits must be purchased at a special store.
Although we were not able to stay awake much past 8 p.m., that was not really a problem because we had to be up very early tomorrow for our all-day tour to Kangaroo Island.
FRI, MAR 3: KANGAROO ISLAND, AUSTRALIA, 6:30AM – 11:30PM
More than half of Kangaroo Island (www.tourkangarooisland.com.au/visitor-guide) is still covered in native vegetation and most of the rest is devoted to agriculture. A quarter of the island, which just off the coast of South Australia, is conserved in national parks and wildlife preserves. It is one of the region's most popular tourist attractions for camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. Cruise ships occasionally call here as well.
Because we only had a limited amount of time for touring, we chose Sealink's "1 Day Kangaroo Island Experience" (www.sealink.com.au/kangaroo-island-tours/1-day-tours/kangaroo-island-highlights-day-tour/), which includes all transportation and lunch for AU$275 pp. The bus was supposed to pick us up in front of the hotel at 6:30 a.m. but was about 10 minutes late, probably because we were the last pick-up point. The tour began with a two-hour bus ride through the Fleurieu Penninsula to the Cape Jervis ferry port. Along the way, the driver pointed out various sights, including many Western Australia Kangaroos in the fields. He told us that we might not see many Kangaroos on Kangaroo Island because they are a subspecies of the Western Australia Kangaroo and have heavier coats. If the day turned out to be hot and sunny, they would likely be hiding in the shade to stay cool. Despite that pessemistic prediction, the day turned out to be overcast and we did see quite a few Kangaroos as we rode around Kangaroo Island.
Once at Cape Jervis, the driver gave us passes for the ferry, which departed about 20 minutes after we arrived at the terminal. While we were waiting, we saw dolphins cavorting outside of the breakwater. The ferry trip takes about an hour to reach Penneshaw. Today the ride across the Backstairs Passage was a bit rocky and a young lady on our tour became seasick. As we disembarked the ferry, buses were waiting to take each of the various tours to its included attractions. Our bus was nearly full when we boarded because many of the people had spent the previous night on the island. Our driver, Marc, was a great guide; he was funny and knowledgeable. He walked with us to each of the various sites to make sure we would see everything that was at each stop.
Our first stop was at the Seal Bay Conservation Park (www.environment.sa.gov.au/sealbay/home) for a beach walk guided by a Parks Interpretive Officer. The animals here are actually Australian Sea Lions, not seals, and this beach is home to the third largest breeding colony in Australia. Only a few Sea Lions were swimming; most were basking on the sand. They generally looked pretty lifeless, except for one juvenile who finally succeeded in rolling mom over for a snack of milk.
By now it was well after noon, so we headed to lunch (included) at the Vivonne Bay Lodge Bistro. [Note: This place is not the Vivonne Bay General Store, celebrated for its whiting burger and lamb burger.] The two-course lunch here included both a beef sausage and piece of chicken, accompanied by a choice of several salads, and dessert. The food was okay—the chicken was better than the sausage—and we needed the calories. The local Cabernet Sauvignon (AU$7.50/glass) from Hazyblur Wines (www.hazyblur.com) was really good.
Next we drove through the Flinders Chase National Park (www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/kangaroo-island/flinders-chase-national-park) to Kirkpatrick Point. As we approached the Point, we could see the Remarkable Rocks in the distance. These are a group of huge carved granite boulders clustered atop a granite dome next to the sea, almost like a surrealistic henge. Soon we were scampering down the short (1 km or 0.6 mile return) Remarkable Rocks Walk (www.environment.sa.gov.au/files/sharedassets/parks/maps/flinders_chase_np_cape_du_couedic_optimised.pdf). We had about 30 minutes to wander among these fantastic shapes, forged over the eons by wind and water. This was a real treat for lovers of erosion like us!
Continuing on to Cape du Couedic, a boardwalk (0.8 km or 0.5 mile return) extends down a rugged cliff face from the parking area to Admirals Arch. Along the way, Long-Nosed Fur Seals could be seen lounging on the rocks. At the end of the boardwalk, stairs lead down to several viewpoints of this spectacular rock archway. After returning to the top of the boardwalk, John and I still had enough time to walk part of the Cape du Couedic Hike along the cliffs to two higher Fur Seal lookouts, good views of the Cape du Couedic Lightstation and more vistas of the stunning coastline. We did not have time to climb all the way up to the Lightstation but it is not open to the public for tours anyway.
This was followed by a toilet break at the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre. We had a short time here if we wanted to view the interactive displays and information panels. Instead, John and I took the short (400 m or 0.25 mile return) Discovery Walk to the Black Swamp lookout. We had been scanning the trees unsuccessfully for Koalas but came upon two Kangaroos foraging in the bush beside the lookout. When we returned to the bus, we saw people looking up into a tree near the parking lot: there was a Koala right there!
Now it was time to look seriously for Koalas at our final stop, the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (www.hansonbay.com.au). There were Kangaroos in a field near the entrance; some of our group took off that way as soon as they got off the bus. (We were envious later when we learned that they also spotted an Echidna.) The rest of us followed Marc over to the Koala Walk, a shady avenue of Eucalyptus trees. After Marc pointed out a few Koalas relaxing in the trees, we were able to start spotting them ourselves. There were plenty here and even in the trees around the parking area!
Overall, the 17-hour trek from our Adelaide hotel to Kangaroo Island and back was outstanding. The tour was well-coordinated, especially considering all the pieces involved and the number of places to stop. We saw Kangaroo, Koala, Fur Seals and Sea Lions. Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch are especially interesting geological sites. This trip was a relative bargain for all the services provided.
SAT, MAR 4: BAROSSA VALLEY
John and I went to Adelaide specifically to tour the wine country around there, so we wanted expert guidance. Fortunately, we found Scott Ninnis’s web site and so we took the plunge. We booked three full days with Scott and his associate JR in the Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale. We were definitely impressed by the beauty of the wine areas, the wines themselves and by the wonderful service of Premium Wine Tours (premiumwinetours.com.au).
Prior to our trip, Scott emailed us about potential wineries to visit with comments about each. We let him arrange all the visits and the lunch reservations for us; his choices were superb!
Today we would drive about an hour north-east of Adelaide to the Barossa wine zone (www.barossa.com/wine), the location of more than 80 cellar doors and 150 wineries. Barossa includes two wine regions, Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. This zone features a wide range of climate conditions, so both grapes that need warmer temperatures (e.g., Shiraz) and those that need cooler ones (e.g., Riesling) can be grown with great success.
In the morning, we started at Hemera Estate (hemeraestate.com.au), where we tasted whites and reds from their Evolution, Estate and Limited Release Ranges. Of special interest was the 2014 Old Vine Grenache, from 100+ year old vines. After the tasting, we had a short tour of the winery.
Next up was Yelland & Papps (www.yellandandpapps.com). The owners, Michael and Susan Papps, do not come from a long line of winemakers; they are simply passionate about wine! This is a small, family-owned winery. Just how much the whole family is involved was underlined when we drove up to find their their young daughter out in the vineyard picking grapes. Susan led our tasting and is especially proud of their 2015 Devote Roussanne.
It was time now for more tasting and lunch at Saltram (www.saltramwines.com.au). We started with the tasting at the bar in the Cellar Door and proceeded to the restaurant, Salter’s Kitchen, for a two-course “Lavish Lunch”. The lunch was an ideal combination of a starter of local charcuterie followed by a main course of grilled lamb rack for me and steak for John, along with a paired wine for each. The food was delicious and the presentation excellent! After lunch, we were offered a taste of Mr. Pickwick’s Tawny. The wine here was outstanding.
Then it was on to Tscharke's Place (www.tscharke.com.au). This is an especially attractive cellar door—with a German theme and an abundance of interesting art, including Eva Tscharke’s pottery. Their 2014 Shiraz Shiraz Shiraz says it all. Damien Tscharke believes that the wholesale-retail divide is not good for wine drinkers so he prices his wines at basically wholesale prices. They are outstanding bargains.
The final tasting today was at Two Hands (www.twohandswines.com). This winery also focuses on Shiraz wines and we had a fantastic chance to try them while relaxing outdoors on their deck. The tastings here include a high-quality wine glass as a souvenir. Thankfully, those were packed in strong canisters that could survive our travels.
SUN, MAR 5: ADELAIDE HILLS
The Adelaide Hills wine region (www.adelaidehillswine.com.au) is only about a 30 minute drive from the Adelaide city center. This area is home to nearly 50 cellar doors and 90 wineries and seems more rural than the Barossa Valley. The wineries also seem to be more spread out among the hills. This area is at a higher elevation than Barossa, so it specializes in cool-climate wines, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Our morning started at Hahndorf Hill Winery (www.hahndorfhillwinery.com.au) followed by The Lane Vineyard (www.thelane.com.au). Both of those had beautiful views out over the vineyards to go with the beautiful wines. Hahndorf had an Austrian tilt to their wines with a couple of versions of Gruner Veltliner and a Blaufrankisch that was quite good. We also saw extensive netting over their red grape vines to help prevent birds from feasting on their wonderful grapes. Lane was a strikingly modern looking cellar door and had a nice range of varietals to taste culminating in their inky “Basket Press” Shiraz.
After that came a tasting at the Sidewood (sidewood.com.au) Cellar Door and lunch in their restaurant, Maximilian’s (maximilians.com.au). Seth guided us through delightful wines, including some of the best sparkling wine and whites that we tasted in the area. For lunch we had the multi-course tasting menu with wines. This was a delicious selection of dishes from their menu and left us more than a little satisfied. For golfers (not us) there is also the Sidewood Golf Challenge: attempt to hit a hole-in-one onto a green floating in a small lake.
The final tasting of the day was at Somerled Wines (somerled.com.au), on Main Street in Hahndorf. We were able to taste these lovely wines while enjoying the beautiful day in the shade of their courtyard. The owner, Rob Moody, worked for over 30 years with Penfolds Wine Group. His Somerled Shiraz (we tried the 2012) has been favorably compared to Penfolds Grange (which retails at more than ten times the price). Like many of the places we visited, Somerled wines are only available at the cellar door and in a few select restaurants in Australia.
MON, MAR 6: MCLAREN VALE AND ADL TO SYD
For the last day of our touring, Scott had a family obligation, so our guide was his associate, JR. The target today was McLaren Vale (mclarenvale.info), which is about 45 minutes south of Adelaide and adjacent to Adelaide Hills. There are more than 70 cellar doors in the region. Although over half of the wines are produced using Shiraz, some wineries are experimenting with less well-known varietals such as Fiano, Tempranillo, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne.
Our first stop was at Oliver's Taranga Vineyards (www.oliverstaranga.com). In addition to excellent wine, there is a lot of history here: the vineyards were first planted over 170 years ago by the 4xgreat grandfather of the current owners. The names of several of the wines are based on incidents in the family history. The cellar door is housed in a workers’ cottage dating to the 1850s. Here we encountered one of those emerging varietals: Fiano, a white varietal from Southern Italy.
Next came a visit to Mollydooker (www.mollydookerwines.com). The name is Australian slang for a left hander; both of the owners are lefties. This is a bigger operation than most of the places we visited and the wines are widely available in the USA. Like at Oliver's Taranga, the wines are named after family members and events. We have had their wines before and were happy to be able to visit this lovely place.
From Mollydooker, we could see the d'Arenberg Cube (future home of a new tasting room) under construction across the fields. This is shaped like a five-level Rubik’s Cube with the top two levels turned askew from the others. It is set out in the middle of a vineyard of Mourvedre grapes, so there will be 360-degree views from the top. We made a quick visit to d'Arenberg (www.darenberg.com.au), not to taste but just to get a closer look at this dramatic building.
The menu at the Salopian Inn (salopian.com.au) is honest when it states that their food is eclectic and it also comes from local, fresh sources. The combination is a knock-out! John and I shared the tasting menu and loved every bite. The small plate starters ranged from cheese arancini to sticky buns and crab and prawn pot stickers. Our shared main course was outstanding Szechuan Salted Free Range Duck. This restaurant has a relatively small selection of wines by the glass but literally pages of gins, each matched with specific tonic waters. Alas, so many gins, so little time. Despite that temptation, we had a glass of Pinot Gris with the lunch.
The Shiraz at McLaren Vale III Associates (mclarenvaleiiiassociates.com.au) is so dark that it has names like The Descendant of Squid Ink, Squid Ink and Giant Squid Ink. Our tongues may have been stained permanently purple from those really good wines! We also happily tasted a Grenache made from vines planted in 1928.
Our final tasting was at Chapel Hill (www.chapelhillwine.com.au), where the tasting room is in a 150 year old chapel. After tasting a selection of their other wines, we moved on to a tasting of their flagship red wines—the Icon Range. Three of those are single-block wines (two Shiraz and one Cabernet Sauvignon) and the other is a blend of Shiraz from the vineyard’s top blocks. These four exceptional wines were paired with a small plate of local charcuterie, cheese and crispbread.
Alas, we had reached the end of our tour. Scott and JR were both excellent guides and hosts and, like all the Aussies we encountered, were quite easy going and helpful. They were knowledgeable and tried to answer our numerous trivia questions (or looked up the answers for us if they did not know—like details about an extremely uncommon grape we encountered at one winery). We enjoyed the geeky stuff and the pleasure of the wines and wineries. We never felt rushed and always felt like the wineries were treating us especially well because we were with Scott or JR. These wine tours are really at a bargain price (AU$190 pp/day) for what you get; all cost are included except the lunches.
At the end of another thoroughly satisfying day, JR dropped us off at the Adelaide airport for our two-hour Qantas flight back to Sydney. After collecting our bags in T3, we started off on what was supposed to be a 10-minute walk to our hotel. I had contacted the hotel manager to find out the best route. He advised us to cross over from T3 to T2, follow the sidewalk on that side of the street, continue along past the DHL facility, then turn right for a short distance to the hotel entrance. However, John put his faith in the walking directions from Google Maps, which directed us to stay on the same side of the street as T3. Unfortunately, Google Maps also wanted us to climb a fence and cross a busy, four-lane street with no crosswalk, which forced us to go by a rather circuitous alternate route that took about twice as long as expected. [Note: A shuttle bus to the hotel was AU$7 pp and a taxi was about AU$20.]
The Ibis Budget Sydney Airport Hotel (www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-5957-ibis-budget-sydney-airport/index.shtml) is a very basic budget hotel—tiny rooms but clean and cheap (AU$129/night). The room had a tea kettle, TV, air conditioning, two extra pillows, two minuscule bars of soap and two towels. This was the tiniest bathroom that I have ever seen: the sink was essentially inside the open shower stall. Clearly a bath mat was not provided because the entire floor, including around the toilet, was flooded after taking a shower. On the other hand, we were there fewer than 12 hours and there was only minor noise from the airport. Breakfast was not included in our rate; it is AU$8 pp extra. The hotel also charges extra to store luggage.
SOME NOTES ON THE “AUSTRALIAN SEASON”
There are a number of differences between the Emerald Princess’ “Australian Season” and her sailings in other parts of the world (e.g., Alaska):
1. Passenger Mix: The passengers are predominately Australian. Out of 3100 passengers on this cruise, there were about 2100 Aussies; only 48 were from the USA.
2. On Board Charges: The currency used on board is AU$. Although at the start of our voyage the exchange rate was AU$1 = US$0.75 (or US$1= AU$1.25), a variety of different exchange rates were used to convert US$ OBC from various sources. Some items were converted on a one-to-one basis (e.g., the usual US$29 cover charge for the Crown Grill was AU$29). Some wines on the wine list were priced the same in AU$ as they usually are in US$; for others, the prices in AU$ were marked up a little compared to the US$ prices. However, the markups were less than the conversion rate plus there was no automatic 15% gratuity added as would be for a standard US cruise. The wines were essentially on sale to US passengers.
3. Gratuities: Tipping is not part of the Australian culture and the stateroom directory indicates that no tipping is required. However, those of us who booked in the USA were automatically charged a daily “Hotel Gratuity”, converted into AU$ (e.g., the usual US$13.95/day for a balcony was AU$18.10/day). However, there is no automatic 15% gratuity applied to purchases of alcoholic beverages.
4. Menus: There is a special set of menus featuring so-called Australian and New Zealand Regional Favorites. I’m not sure I would consider spaghetti with Bolognese sauce particularly Australian but that’s what it said on the menu. That dish alternated with Fettuccine Alfredo as the “Always Available” pasta selection. On the dessert menu, the usually “Always Available” cheesecake was replaced with Pavlova. It was good to see some new dishes but we felt that the menu lacked variety from night to night.
5: Beverage Packages: The Silver and Gold 7-, 10-, and 12-bottle wine packages were not offered. On the other hand, the All-Inclusive Beverage Package (AU$59/day) was heavily promoted. The Premium Coffee Card (15 specialty coffees) was AU$36.
6. Entertainment: Four production shows were the same as on other Princess ships; “Magic to Do” is a new show appearing only on the Emerald, Ruby and Crown Princesses. Only a few of the entertainers seemed to have been chosen to appeal more particularly to an Australian audience. There was also a game show, “How Aussie Are You?”.
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
TUES, MAR 7: BOARD EMERALD PRINCESS, ALL ABOARD 5PM
We left the hotel about 9:30 a.m. to take the more direct route to T2. Midway to the terminal, it started to rain, so we took shelter under an awning at the DHL facility. Once the rain stopped, we continued on to the Domestic Airport train station (www.airportlink.com.au). In the light of day and with the previous night’s experience as a lesson, we took the proper paths and the walking time actually was ten minutes. The train fare (AU$17.90 pp) seems rather high for the 20-minute ride to Circular Quay because it includes a special airport access fee. Tickets must be purchased from vending machines (cash or credit card) in the station and also must be tapped on sensors to open the turnstiles at the beginning and end of the ride.
Because of work on the train tracks, we had to change to the Circle Line at the Central Station. That train was on the same platform, so it was only a minor inconvenience to make the change. During our ride, we noticed that it was raining again, much harder than before. Luckily, the rain had stopped again by the time we reached the Circular Quay Station. From there it is only about 1/3 mi (450 m) to the Overseas Passenger Terminal (OPT), where the Emerald Princess was docked.
As we walked over to the terminal, it started to rain again lightly. We got into the boarding queue and were handed health forms and forms to exit Australia. At about 11 a.m., a Princess agent came along asking for those of us with Preferred Boarding to form another queue. In a few minutes, we were allowed to check in, given a boarding group card and then directed to a waiting area. After a short wait, people without Preferred Boarding were processed through customs and passport control, then sent to another area to wait. While they were waiting, those with Preferred Boarding were processed and allowed to board the ship first. John and I were aboard by about noon, along with two bottles of wine that we had purchased during our touring in the South Australia wine areas.
We had booked a category BF balcony guarantee stateroom and were assigned a category B1 cabin on the Caribe deck starboard near the midships stairs/elevators. We had been offered an upsell to a mini-suite for US$199 pp, but preferred to stay on the Caribe deck because of its extra-large balconies, which are half open and half covered. Once in our cabin, John called the Dine Line to make reservations for dinner tonight at the Crown Grill; however, no one was answering the phone. I had better luck reaching Room Service to exchange some of the items in our complimentary minibar setup. We decided to wait to unpack and headed off to the Prego Pizzeria for a slice of pizza to tide us over until dinner. Later in the afternoon, we stopped by the Crown Grill (AU$29 pp) to make our dinner reservation.
We had considered getting off the ship to explore the Sydney waterfront (www.therocks.com/media/1031789/shfa_the-rocks-map-2017-v7-lr.pdf) but the intermittent rain made that an unattractive option. Instead, we went back to the cabin and unpacked. By and by our cabin steward, Warlito from the Philippines, stopped in to introduce himself. We only have a few special requirements for our cabin steward: bar soap for the shower, clean wine glasses and a steady supply of laundry bags. Later we attended General Emergency Stations (muster drill).
We chose “Anytime Dining" for this cruise and generally opt to to dine at one of the specialty restaurants on the first night rather than brave the chaos in the main dining rooms. Tonight we had all of our Crown Grill favorites: diver scallops, Black and Blue onion soup, the Sterling Silver Beef Chop with sauteed wild mushrooms and onions, and garlic and herb fries. Normally we would have shared an order of lobster but the menu now specifies that guests may only choose one starter, one soup or salad, and one main course. For dessert, we each had a plate chosen from the cheese cart plus a cappuccino.
During dinner, Captain Martin Stenzel announced that we would finally be leaving port around 7 p.m. After exiting Sydney Harbour into the Tasman Sea, we would turn north toward the Coral Sea. The ride was expected to be a bit rough tonight but fortunately we have never been troubled by motion sickness and actually enjoy being rocked to sleep.
WED, MAR 08: AT SEA
We would spend the next two days crossing the Coral Sea to New Caledonia. Our normal sea day schedule consists of waking up, showering and getting dressed, finding a spot to read that gets us out of Warlito’s way so he can make up the cabin, having a slice of pizza for lunch, relaxing and reading on our balcony, enjoying an afternoon drink or soft serve ice cream, having dinner, going to a show, and reading until it is time for a good night’s sleep. Occasionally we vary that busy program by attending a port or enrichment lecture, watching a movie, going for a walk or participating in some other activity.
When we left the cabin this morning, we found an invitation to the “Most Traveled” luncheon in the mail holder. We were surprised that it would be held tomorrow and we had to RSVP by noon today; usually this function is held near the end of a cruise. Of course, we are always happy when we make the cut-off to be among the top 40 passengers by number of days cruised. We made sure to drop off the reply card before the deadline! We had a reservation at SHARE for tomorrow night but we knew from experience that we would not be hungry enough after the luncheon to enjoy dining there; John called and moved our reservation to Saturday night.
This morning, we went to a port talk on Noumea. The Port Lecturer, Douglas Pearson, is British but lives in Tahiti. He does not waste any time during his lectures, which are jam-packed with useful information. He would be presenting another lecture, on Port Vila, right after lunch. We decided to watch that talk later on the stateroom TV.
After the lecture, we went to a presentation in the SHARE restaurant. Attendees were welcomed with a glass of Champagne or a Mimosa. Then each of Chef Curtis Stone’s creations was described and shown around so we would all know what to expect if we chose to dine there. Although SHARE has received a lot of negative reviews on Cruise Critic, tonight and tomorrow night were already sold out.
Tonight was the first formal night. John was afraid that he would be the only male guest in a tuxedo or dinner jacket but there were about as many formally-dressed men as on a Caribbean cruise. There were many other men wearing suits or sports coats with ties and we even saw one wearing a kilt.
John had reserved a table for two in the Michelangelo Dining Room. We were shown to a nice table right next to a window. As noted above, there is a special set of regional menus for the “Australian Season”. We enjoyed the shrimp fritters, Australian rock lobster bisque and roasted red snapper.
After dinner, we attended the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Party and Champagne Waterfall. We noticed that the Maitre d’ was not allowing people who wanted to pour champagne to actually touch the bottle; he was deftly moving their hands to his elbow. John wondered whether a past accident might be responsible for this procedural change. We left the party a bit early to get seats for the production show, “I Got the Music”. This show was quite popular; there were few empty seats and people were standing along the walls of the theater.
When we returned to the cabin, we were happily surprised to see the laundry order that we sent out last night had returned already. We each only had one more set of clean underwear left and I was not looking forward to “going commando”! There must not have been many Elite Captain’s Circle members on board if the laundry could be processed so quickly. [Note: I later learned that there were only 354 Elites, which explained the quick turnaround.]
THU, MAR 09: AT SEA
Today the early morning port lecture was a twofer: Mystery Island and Champagne Beach. We attended that and most of the late morning port lecture on Luganville.
We had to leave the second lecture early to attend the “Most Traveled” luncheon in the Crown Grill. As usual, this was a fantastic meal with special dishes: Sun Dried Tomato and Ricotta Cannoli with broccoli cream, olives and pistachios; Bacon-Wrapped Beef Filet topped with blue cheese and served with a truffle demi-glace; Sable Breton (butter cookie) layered with Bavarian cream and chocolate. We were seated with the Entertainment Director, Matt Thompson, so we were probably in the bottom 20. Although we did not count heads, it did not appear that we had the usual full complement of 40 attendees.
In the afternoon, we attended the “Princess Grapevine” wine tasting. At one time this event featured the same wines over and over; in recent years, there has been more variety. Today there was a regional flavor to the tasting than usual: one wine was from Italy and four were from Australia. The crowd was also more boisterous than usual, with one group in the back corner having a grand (and loud) old time. To be fair, the tasting started 20 minutes late and the headwaiter who led off the tasting spoke in excruciating detail about bottle shapes before moving on to a discussion of the first wine. By the time we reached the fourth wine, many people had finished all five and were leaving in droves.
For dinner tonight, we checked out the buffet but decided that a slice of pizza was sufficient after our large lunch. We headed to the Princess Theater about half an hour before showtime, a Dolly Parton tribute by singer Donna Campbell. Dolly Parton (or Donna Campbell) must be incredibly popular in Australia: the theater was already SRO and people were being turned away. We are not such great Dolly Parton fans that we wanted to wait up for the late performance.
FRI, MAR 10: NOUMEA, NEW CALEDONIA, 8AM – 4:30PM
Noumea (www.newcaledonia.travel/au/noumea) on the main island, Grand Terre, is the capital of New Caledonia. Like French Polynesia, New Caledonia is a French Overseas Collectivity, so French is the official language and the official flag is the French tricolor. The official currency is the Central Polynesian Franc (CFP). Many merchants will accept AU$; however, the franc is preferred and some attractions will only accept francs. When we visited, the exchange rate was US$1 = 113 CFP.
Smaller ships can enter the Baie de la Moselle and dock at the City Terminal (Gare Maritime). However, the Emerald Princess had to dock at the Container Terminal, where no pedestrian traffic is allowed. Instead, a free shuttle to the City Terminal operated continuously until 4:30 p.m. Early in the morning, a shuttle ticket was required to head into town; we managed to be on the first shuttle.
John had booked a six-hour tour with Fernando’s Tours & Transport (www.fernandos-tours.com/tours.html) for 15,000 CFP (US$133) pp, including lunch. Fernando and his van were waiting for us in the parking lot on the opposite side of the City Terminal from the shuttle drop-off point. He greeted us with colorul faux leis and a two-cheek kiss. We learned that our group today would also include another couple and a family of three. Fernando accepts payment on the day in cash (francs only) or by credit card (with a 1.5% surcharge), which avoids issues if our ship had not docked. There is a grocery with an ATM directly across the street from the parking lot, where we could obtain francs.
Note that there is no fixed itinerary for Fernando’s tours: there are standard sights plus various options that are selected each day by the group. For that reason, admission prices for the optional attractions are not included in the price of the tour. Also note that some of those fees must be paid in local currency. If part of the group wants to visit a site that others don't, Fernanado will accomodate that.
Once our group had gathered, Fernando showed us a big piece of nickel ore that he had recently found. Mining was once a major component of New Caledonia's economy and there is still a large nickel processing plant on the shore only a short distance from the city center. Now that tourism is becoming more important, plans are for that area eventually to be reclaimed as a recreation area.
Our first stop was at Les Petits Choux (www.facebook.com/Les-Petits-Choux-412353895622444/), a boulangerie-patisserie where we could enjoy a snack or coffee. Most of the pastries cost about 500 CFP (US$4.45) and payment in AUD$ was also accepted.
Next we visited Le Marche de Noumea (www.noumea.nc/en/discover-noumea/port-moselle-market), also called the Morning Market. There is a big handicrafts section and I was able to buy a Kanak flag, which is the offical New Caledonia regional flag and can be flown alongside the French tricolor. Now that I had my favorite souvenir, we could enjoy strolling through the other pavillions and admiring the fruits and vegetables, tropical flowers, meats and seafood. It did seem a little odd to see Parrot Fish laid out on ice instead of swimming around chomping on a reef.
Fernando next took us to a lookout at the end of Alée de Bougainvilliées, a short distance from the market. From here we had great views of the port and the city center. Fernando pointed out many points of interest, including St. Joseph's Cathedral. We would not be able to visit the Cathedral today because it is currently under renovation.
We drove past a number of sights, such as the the American Monument, several museums and the Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Tree Square), on the way to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre (www.adck.nc/presentation/english-presentation/visit-the-center). The striking modern design of the Centre—ten conical pavilions of various sizes—is meant to evoke the conical shape of a traditional Kanak hut. Part of the Centre is a museum, with artifacts from the Kanak culture and contemporary works by artists from the region. After touring the exhibits, John and I took the Kanak Pathway through the wooded grounds so that we could better appreciate the design of the Center. At one end, the trail leads to the Mwakaa (ceremonial area), where there are replicas of three traditional huts. At the other end is a lagoon surrounded by mangroves. Along the path are information boards about the symbolism of plants in the Kanak culture. Admission to the Center was 500 CFP (US$4.45) pp (senior rate).
Next we headed north into the countryside and the Fontaine du Plum near the Commune du Mont-Dore. This is a public fountain, fed by springs from the mountain. Locals come here to fill up containers with the water and it is also commercially bottled. There is a hiking trail here that leds to the top of Mont-Dore; John and I hiked a short portion of the trail to get some good views. After this, we made a brief visit to Fernando's home and got to meet his beautiful two-year-old son, Lorenzo, and wife, Soana.
On the way back to town, we made a stop at one of the oldest (1874) churches in New Caledonia, Eglise de L’Immaculee Conception. This church is popularly known as the "Miracle Church" due to the number of favors and miracles sttributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. An unusual feature of this church is the steeple, topped with a statue of Mary instead of a cross.
Now it was time for lunch at L'Eau Vive du Pacifique. This restaurant is one of 13 around the world (www.restaurant-eauvive.it/who-are-we/) operated by the Missionary Workers of the Immaculate Conception, an order of Carmelite nuns, to support the work of the order. The nuns don't wear habits though; they wear traditional dresses from their homelands. Our tour included a three-course lunch (two choices for each course) with wine, beer or a soft drink. I had a gratin of endives as a starter; John had a salad with pasta. We both had the fillet of merlin (whiting) in a mustard butter sauce as the main course, accompanied by the local beer, "Number 1". For dessert, I tried the waffle with mango coulis and John had ice cream.
After that, we were off to the peninsula south of Noumea and Ouen Toro hill. The park at the top of the hill has two WWII guns and great views over Anse Vata, Baie des Citrons and the islands in the lagoon around Grand Terre. We drove back to town along Anse Vata beach and Baie des Citrons beach, two popular beaches for swimming. At this point, time was getting short and one couple wanted to be let off in town to do some shopping.
After dropping them off at the City Terminal, Fernando took the rest of us to the Musee de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (www.noumea.nc/musee-de-la-seconde-guerre-mondiale). This is a very small WWII museum with some nice exhibits; the admission is only 100 CFP (US$0.80) pp (senior rate) but must be paid in francs. After touring the museum, John and I left the group to walk back to the City Terminal. I had a few francs left and bought a string necklace with a fish charm before we caught the shuttle back to the ship.
We had a fabulous time but we’re not sure whether Fernando didn't have an even better time! He was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide and seems to know everyone in Noumea and beyond. This was great fun and great scenery. Fernando even emailed us pictures that he had taken of of our group. [Note: Princess offered a three-hour “Noumea Town and Country” tour for AU$109.95 pp that included most of the same photo ops (but not a visit to the museum or cultural center) plus a stop for tea/coffee and cake.]
We were not enthralled by tonight’s dinner offerings, so we decided to try the Salty Dog Gastropub (AU$18 pp), with dishes created by Chef Ernesto Uchimura (www.princess.com/ships-and-experience/food-and-dining/specialty-restaurants/the-salty-dog-gastropub/salty-dog-menu.pdf). This meal starts with a shared appetizer, then each person chooses two small plates and a dessert. We thought the best item is the “Ernesto”, a fancy cheeseburger. One of the toppings is a beer-battered jalapeno, which the waitress warned us might be very hot; we did not find it too spicy though. We both enjoy eating and thought that this was plenty of food to satisfy our appetites. However, I have seen complaints on Cruise Critic that that a trip to the buffet was necessary afterwards.
This evening’s production show was “DISCO...Blame it on the Boogie”, which featured songs by Donna Summers, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees. We got there early enough to get a good seat.
SAT, MAR 11: MYSTERY ISLAND, VANUATU, TENDER 7AM – 5PM
Today the ship anchored off Mystery Island and a tender ticket system was in operation: no returns to the ship were allowed before 11:30 a.m., no one could tender ashore after 2 p.m. and the last tender back to the ship was at 5 p.m.
The real name of Mystery Island is Inyeug, a tiny islet off the coast of the much larger island of Aneityum on the southern tip of the Vanuatu archipelago. Mystery Island is home to the Aneityum Airport, a grassy strip that takes up most of the islet; it was used by Allied forces during WWII. The island is uninhabited, except when cruise ships visit. Then villagers from Aneityum set up a market with handicrafts, massages, hair braiding and the like. There are a lot of places to eat and drink as well as many snorkeling tours on offer from the locals.
When we got off the tender, we started walking counterclockwise on the sand path around the perimeter of the islet; making a complete circuit takes about 20 minutes with no stops. However, we stopped plenty of times to take photos, first at the airport. Along the path there were lots of beautiful flowers (perhaps wild varieties of Poinsettia and Spider Lilies) and coconut palms. We also saw plenty of Pandanus, with its clusters of spiky leaves and fruit that resembles a pineapple. There were even a few information markers explaining aspects of the local environment.
We stopped before reaching the crowded area of the beach in a spot that looked good for snorkeling. We had brought our own snorkels, prescription masks and snorkel fins. Water shoes are also a good idea; we had our dive booties. The water temperature was very pleasant and there were many small coral heads scattered on the sandy bottom. The water was calm and only a few feet deep but we did not have any problem floating above the coral formations. There were many varieties of colorful reef fish and lots of huge sea cucumbers (including a blue one!). Some of the coral heads were purple, which we had not seen before. We spent about an hour enjoying this area before heading back to the ship.
Tonight we had reservations at SHARE (AU$39 pp). This is a six-course meal (www.princess.com/downloads/pdf/ships-and-experience/food-and-dining/curtis-stone/SHARE-by-Curtis-Stone-Menu.pdf), so we were glad we had worked up a good appetite snorkeling. We both had the Charcuterie as the starter (two to choose from) and the Lemon Poached Prawns as the salad (three choices). There are two pasta choices: John had the Ricotta Cavatelli and I had the Pork Ravioli. Then came four choices from the sea: John picked the Butter Poached Lobster Tail and I had the Day Boat Scallops. There are also four land dishes: John had the Duck Leg Confit and I had the Lamb Loin. Finally, there were three dessert options: John had the Toffee Cheesecake and I had the Dark Chocolate Cremeux. We thought the food was excellent but the surcharge is a little steep; also we hate that Sabatini’s was eliminated to make room for SHARE.
The featured performer tonight was Donna Campbell in a new show but we didn’t make it to that.
SUN, MAR 12: PORT VILA, EFATE, VANUATU, 8AM – 5:30PM
Once again, the Emerald Princess docked at an inconvenient location: well away from the city center at Port Vila’s main wharf. For those looking for souvenirs, the locals set up a large market right next to the ship. For those who wanted to go into Port Vila, there are taxis and water taxis (both AU$5 pp) just outside the port gates.
We took advantage of our port call here to book a dive with Big Blue Scuba Diving (bigbluevanuatu.com). Our instructions were to take a water taxi, which would stop right at their dock. Unfortunately, we were not alerted that there are multiple taxi stops in Port Vila and Big Blue is not at the first one. We got off with everyone else and looked around for the dive shop. It was nowhere to be seen, so we asked directions at the Grand Hotel and Casino. We were directed to continue walking into town. We had to ask directions again at a liquor store but eventually found Big Blue behind the Nambawan Cafe. If we ever come here again, we will be sure to ask the water taxi driver to take us to their dock and avoid the long walk that we had to make this time!
Big Blue is a very low-key but professional operation and provided excellent service. Sam was our dive master and he certainly knew his stuff! There were only two other divers on the boat and they were doing some special course, so we had Sam to ourselves on the first dive. We did a beautiful reef dive at the Twin Bommies. There were lots of fish, including plenty of Clownfish and Moorish Idols, and a small shark that wanted nothing to do with us. I got to hold a Pufferfish and Sea Star and to “pet” a Spiny Sea Cucumber.
The second dive was a tour of the wreck of the Konanda and one of the other divers joined us. The wreck site was a little murky but still quite interesting. The wreck is open enough that it is safe to penetrate some of the holds, cabin and bridge areas even with OW certification. Sam tried to pose me for a “I’m King of the World!” photo on the bow but I am just too buoyant to hold still long enough for John to get a good photo. We saw a Lionfish here—right where it’s supposed to be: in the Pacific, not the Caribbean. [Note: Princess offered a one-tank dive on the Konanda for AU$189.95; that was the same price as our two-tank dive with all equipment.]
When we returned to the ship, we stopped at the handicraft market, where I found a Vanuatu flag. Two for two on finding flags! As we went up the gangway, we were astounded to see a huge number of bags lined up on the pier, full of liquor from the duty-free shops. This is obviously the St. Thomas of the Pacific, where everyone in Australia comes to get their liquor! Later, as the ship was pulling away from the pier, the dock workers sent up the cry, “Aussie Aussie Aussie!”, which was followed by a resounding answer from the ship,”Oi Oi Oi!". That cheer was repeated heartily several times until the ship was out in the channel.
Tonight the performers were Robert Pearson and George Harvey, formerly members of the Four Kinsmen (an Australian variety act). Pearson is a singer and straight man to Harvey's physical comedy. Even though this is an Australian act, there were only a few comedic references that were unintelligible to us. We had seen these performers on our Indian Ocean cruise in 2015 and were happy to be able to be able to enjoy their hilarious act again.
MON, MAR 13: CHAMPAGNE BAY, ESPIRITU SANTO, VANUATU, TENDER 7AM – 4PM
Today the ship anchored in Champagne Bay and we were tendered into Champagne Beach, a lovely crescent of white sand backed by coconut palms and other tropical trees. As at Mystery Island, a tender ticket system was in operation, no returns to the ship were allowed before 11:30 a.m., no one could tender ashore after 2 p.m. and the last tender back to the ship was at 4 p.m.
As we exited the tender pier, there was a group of local schoolchildren singing a welcome song. I wish we had known to bring some school supplies. Next came the gauntlet of taxi drivers. After that, the beach was to the left and a large market to the right. On the beach were people offering fishing trips or glass bottom boat rides. Everyone seemed to expect payment in AU$, with bills much preferred over coins.
This was one of the few times that John and I planned to engage a tour in port. We wanted to swim in one of the “blue holes” that dot the coastline of Espiritu Santo island. These are deep-blue pools where fresh water springs bubble up and mix with salt water from the ocean. The first taxi drivers we encountered wanted to take us to the Riki Blue Hole and a couple of other sights (an overlook, snorkel time at another beach) for AU$20 pp. We were not really interested in the extra amenities at Riki (rope swing, pontoon) and opted to go to the closer and less-developed Hog Harbour Blue Lagoon for AU$10 pp round trip. All of the various blue holes charge AU$7 pp entry fee.
Our driver was Arnold (“like Arnold Schwarzenegger”) and he had a comfortable minivan for the 15-minute drive to the blue hole. Along the way, he proudly pointed out local sites like traditional houses and the village schools. Once at the blue hole, we arranged for him to pick us up after an hour. We paid our entry fee (AU coins accepted, change for notes available) and headed down the steep, rough steps to the pool. On the way down, there were some young boys dressed as native warriors and two little girls dressed in grass skirts available for a photo op in exchange for a tip.
Part way down the steps is a small overlook of the pool, surrounded by lush tropical foliage. At the bottom there are some rocky areas around the edges of the pool where you can leave your towels and other belongings while you swim. We had brought our dive booties to wear around and in the pool and they were good protection from the sharp lava rock. We decided against using our snorkel fins and had not bothered to bring our wet suits.
The water at the entrance to the pool is a bit cold but not a problem once you are in and swimming around. In any case, parts of the pool are warm and areas where the springs emerge are much colder. It is really interesting to see the mixing lines where the warm and cold water meet. The water is fairly clear away from the entry point and there are a good number of tropical reef fish schooling among the lava boulders and submerged trees. The water is not very salty but even John (who is not nearly as buoyant as I am) had no problem floating.
We swam around the main pool and found that it connected to a smaller pool at the end opposite the entry point. We swam through a narrow channel into the smaller pool and could see and hear the ocean waves crashing on the beach. After exploring the small pool, we swam back to the main pool and spent the rest of our time there. This is not particularly exciting snorkeling but the unique setting makes it special. Soon it was time to climb up and wait for Arnold to drive us back to Champagne Beach.
On the end of the beach away from the tender pier, fresh water springs bubble up through the sand and sea bed; these are responsible for the names Champagne Beach and Champagne Bay. There were lots of coral heads that attracted swarms of reef fish. The snorkeling here was good but not quite as good as on Mystery Island. The coral tended to be sandy as this whole area was open to the ocean and waves. As at the blue hole, there were warm and cold regions and it was easy to see the mixing lines. We spent about an hour snorkeling before heading back to the ship for some pizza.
The show tonight was “What a Swell Party”—this is essentially a nice Cole Porter tribute.
TUE, MAR 14: LUGANVILLE, ESPIRITU SANTO, VANUATU, 7AM – 4:30PM
Today the Emerald Princess docked in Luganville (www.espiritusantotourism.com), called Santo by the locals. We docked at the Santo Main Wharf, where a new cruise terminal is under construction. It is an easy 15-minute walk from the ship to the city center.
Today we wanted to dive the SS President Coolidge, a WWII troop ship accidentally sunk by a friendly mine. The cruise ship offered a pricey (AU$189.95 pp) one-tank shore dive but Aore Adventure Sports (aoreadventures.com) had a better deal. We did two great dives on the Coolidge from their boat, the Full Boar, for about AU$245 pp. We simply walked down to the small dock behind Santo Hardware (just west of the BP Wharf), where we were picked up and whisked to the dive site. There was only one other diver in our group; she was also from the Emerald Princess.
The Coolidge is enormous and is resting on its side. It looms out of the slightly murky water as a giant structure and the first dive was almost like a wall dive, except with fewer fish and lower visibility. Nevertheless, it was an impressive dive site. We were down to 34 meters (112 feet) for a time and had to do two safety stops on the way up. The second dive involved some minor penetrations of the wreck in order to see lots of the military equipment on board.
This was a real safety conscious operation. The dive master carried a pony bottle (which John needed when his regulator started leaking) and had a full tank with three regs tethered on the bow line in case we got low. Our safety stops were in nice clear, warm water and it was like swimming in an aquarium. There were some huge anemones and we found Nemo, his brothers, sisters, cousins and distant relatives. They were all curious about us and came really close.
Paul, the owner and boat driver, and Sethy, our dive master, were professional but friendly and very helpful. Paul had lunch for us during the long surface interval and shared some history about the ship and the dive site. Be sure to check with Paul about your weight needs, since he uses aluminum tanks with thick bottoms. This gives them neutral buoyancy at the end of your dive so you don’t have to worry about floating to the surface.
The show tonight featured Steve Larkins in “Mercury Rising”, a tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen. He is an energetic and entertaining performer but these are not really among our favorite artists.
WED, MAR 15: AT SEA
This morning we attended a port lecture on Sydney. Given that the vast majority of the Emerald’s passengers are from Australia, the lecture was only sparsely attended. Even though we spent five days in the Sydney area in 2012, John and I enjoyed reliving our memories of that visit and gathering ideas for our turnover day in Sydney.
This afternoon we attended the Maitre d’ Wine Club (AU$34 pp). This is a more elaborate tasting than the Princess Grapevine. The upper-tier wines included a Champagne, a Pinot Gris, a Viognier, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Barolo and a Shiraz. The Champagne and the Barolo were obviously from France and Italy, respectively; the Pinot Gris was from New Zealand and the other wines were from Australia. The wines were supposed to be paired with appropriate canapes. The canapes were quite skimpy and, after the first couple of wines, the presenters forgot to suggest pairings. Although it was nice to taste some of the better offerings on the Princess wine list, I thought this activity was overpriced.
Tonight was the second and last formal night and dinner featured the traditional lobster tail, accompanied with two jumbo prawns. We were disappointed that the appetizers did not include escargots. Instead, John had the duck carpaccio and the prawns with brandy sauce for starters; I also had the prawns and sweetbreads and chicken in a puff pastry shell. For dessert, John enjoyed strawberry cheesecake and I chose the citrus souffle.
After dinner, we attended one of several Captain’s Circle parties for those who have cruised previously with Princess. We had seen so many blue cruise cards (first-time Princess cruisers) that we were a little surprised to learn that about two-thirds (2051) aboard were repeat passengers. The most traveled couple had 2621 days, second place had 2196 and third place had 1522. Even after another 25 years of cruising, I don’t think we’ll reach those numbers! Unlike most CC parties, no hors d’oeuvres were passed; the emphasis was on serving drinks. John and I had some nice after-dinner brandy.
By the time the party was over, there was no hope of finding a seat at the 8 p.m. performance of Princess’ new production show, “Magic to Do”, so we waited for the 10 p.m. show. The title of this show is also a song from composer Stephen Schwartz’s musical, “Pippin”. Other of his songs (from “Godspell” “Wicked”, etc.) were interspersed with classical magic illusions. This outstanding and creative 55-minute show was definitely a step up for Princess. Perhaps they are trying to compete with Royal Caribbean’s incredible entertainment package? [Note: We saw a Broadway-quality production of “Cats” plus two diving shows and an ice show on the Oasis of the Seas last summer.]
It was after 11 p.m. when we made it back to the cabin. A few minutes later, there was a ship-wide (even in the staterooms) announcement asking anyone with both O- blood and their blood donor card to contact the Medical Center to donate for a critical medical emergency. John (A+) and I (A-) always bring our donor cards but could not help in this instance. Later there was another announcement thanking those who volunteered and saying that no more volunteers were needed. The ship did not divert to New Caledonia for a possible helicopter evacuation, so perhaps the patient was stable after the transfusion. [Note: In Thursday’s noon announcement, the Captain said that the patient was expected to make a full recovery and we found out later that over a dozen blood donors turned up and others were turned away.]
THU, MAR 16: AT SEA
This morning we slept in a little before packing up the last bag of laundry for this leg of the cruise. Then we found a good spot to read or work on this review until lunch time. We picked up our customary slice of pizza and took it back to the cabin to enjoy on the balcony with the last of our wine. The sky was overcast but the air temperature was about 78 F (25 C)—very pleasant for sitting on the balcony and watching the ocean go by.
This afternoon, Douglas Pearson gave an astronomy lecture on “The Eccentric Star Gazer: From the Big Dipper to the Southern Cross”. As in his port lectures, Doug provided an enormous amount of information, albeit in a rather scattershot fashion. His topics ranged from the Andromeda Galaxy, to the speed of light, to the diameter of the moon compared to the width of Australia, to the women for whom geographical features on the planet Venus are named. In his enthusiasm, he ran well over his allotted time. It was an interesting but exhausting talk!
Tonight was Italian Night in the main dining rooms, one of our favorite menus. The headwaiters made Penne Arrabiata, so we had a small serving of that plus the seafood antipasto and the Eggplant Parmesan as starters. Our main course was Brasato di Manzo al Barolo: beef pot roasted in Barolo with grilled polenta cakes. For dessert, John had tiramisu and zabaglione ice cream; I had apple-filled crepes with a custard sauce and vanilla ice cream.
This evening we had a choice between a new show by Pearson and Harvey or “Magical Showtime” with Justin Gentry, who performed the illusions in “Magic to Do”. We decided on the magic show, which turned out to be more of a mentalist show with some sleight of hand. The last trick involved solving a Rubik’s cube in seven moves while blindfolded.
FRI, MAR 17: AT SEA
Today was St. Patrick’s Day, so shamrocks adorned the cover of the Princess Patter, green balloons and other decorations were scattered around the ship, and we were promised traditional Irish dishes in the dining rooms. We had chosen to make another reservation at SHARE.
The Culinary Demonstration and Galley Tour were held this morning. However, we have attended that many times and decided to pass today. I also skipped the Onboard Outlet Sale and all the other spending opportunities.
This afternoon we organized our belongings for their move to our new cabin for the next (New Zealand) leg of our cruise. I put all the swimming/snorkeling/diving equipment that would not be needed again into one suitcase and all of the loose clothing into another. Warlito would move the bags and any clothing on hangers to our new cabin tomorrow while we enjoyed the turnaround day in Sydney.
At SHARE tonight, we selected some new dishes: Tomatoes and Burrata, Steelhead Trout, Strip Loin Steak and Citron Tart. We again thought the food was excellent. However, we had exhausted the list of dishes that really appealed to us and did not plan to return here on the subsequent New Zealand cruise. We did find out that the menu will change again when the Emerald Princess is repositioned to Alaska this summer.
The featured performer tonight was Steve Larkins with a new tribute show based on the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen. We had enjoyed the first show but we are not huge fans of those artists. We also missed the “Sherlock Holmes Musical Murder Mystery”.
Tomorrow was the turnaround day between our two cruises. As noted above, I have written a separate review for that cruise: “The Far Side of the World, Part 2: New Zealand”.
We had booked a category BF balcony guarantee stateroom and were assigned a category B1 cabin on the Caribe deck starboard near the midships stairs/elevators. We had been offered an upsell to a mini-suite for US$199 pp, but preferred to stay on the Caribe deck because of its extra-large balconies, which are half open and half covered.