Is this the real life? Was that just fantasy?
I am currently working my way through the four stages of grief.
We disembarked yesterday in Wellington, checking out of our cabin at 9am as ordered, but then hanging about on the pool deck for as long as possible, desperately clinging to the fading aroma of What Life Is Like As A World Cruiser. I took my final chance to savour the ice cream, and we read books in the shaded sunshine, but it didn’t feel as full of gay abandon as the previous five days. When we finally walked down the gangway on to the shuttle bus into town, I couldn’t look back.
To add insult to injury, last night I had to make up my own bed. As I disconsolately tugged at the fitted sheet, I thought wistfully of Yelena’s bright efficiency as she folded our beds down each night (not that we were ever there to witness it, of course, as we were always at dinner, the cruising world ensuring you step back into your freshly tidied fantasyland without its being tarnished by Behind the Scenes knowledge). My tears fell, but there was no Joanna to replace the damply soiled facecloth with an instantly fresh one. As the pillow refused to be stuffed into its fresh case, I cried out in anguish to the cruel gods (no doubt Poseidon is mostly to blame), but no Sebastian raced in to settle me into a plush armchair with a G&T.
Well, I exaggerate slightly. But I did feel awfully sad.
Before descending into mopes-ville, however, there was a 4th day on board and a 5th evening of fun.
We sailed into Napier on yet another scorchingly sunny day, and the Banker resolved that this would be the morning to run 5km around the deck. I offered moral support by doing two laps myself (fast walking) and en route I met up with the male half of a middle-aged couple from Rhode Island whom we’d met on the first evening. Matt and his girlfriend Jan seemed like good company, and as he and I chatted, we watched keen passengers disembarking the ship and hopping into tour buses bound for Napier’s main centre. Occasionally the Banker ran sweatily past us, and we cheered her on, then returned to discussing the various events we’d experienced over the last few days. As an ex-US military chap himself, he had enjoyed General Renuart’s lecture, so that gave me some perspective. We agreed to meet up, the four of us, later in the day.
The Banker and I freshened up before a lazy breakfast (this time waffles and pancakes for me, the first and only descent into “naughty” gluttony – if you don’t count the six meals a day thing) and then met with our fellow journos for a galley tour.
WHAT an eye-opener. In the same way I’d half-joked about there being men in the annals of the ship, shovelling coal into furnaces while we were at sea, I fully expected the ship’s kitchen to be like something out of a Gordon Ramsay programme. After all, they cater for as many as 922 guests (though presently our ship is carrying about 700) plus the 500-odd staff. Instead, it was an oasis of well-planned, logistically-perfect calm, and we were honoured by an hour of the Executive Chef’s time as he showed us around and answered all our questions.
One thing that has been apparent all along, is how happy all the crew seem to be – and genuinely so, not the tight smiles of retailers in posh department stores. Chef Markus cheerfully explained how he works 3 months (solid, 7 days a week) on, and then has 3 paid months off, living in Fiji with his wife. Sometimes she (and other staff spouses) is allowed to live on board, for free, for a couple of months. (No doubt she tires of this quite quickly, however, for as enamoured as I am of shipboard life, I can’t imagine being captive for that long and not working.) Markus runs a tight ship down in the galley, and his sous-chefs and food preppers are largely Filipino, Indian and Pakistani. They are all trained to top-class service in a cook school in Manila. Everyone is paid good money and treated very well.
While Prego and the Nobu restaurant have their own kitchens (which gives you a feel for the size of the ship!), there is one Head Pastry Chef, and he and his team of 7 produce all the cakes, pastries and desserts for every cafe and restaurant on board. Work continues 24/7 in the galley, with people chopping veges and making soups in the wee hours. Bread is baked on board three times a day (and I can vouch for how exquisite it is – the bagels were far and away the best I’ve had anywhere in the world). There are 40,000 bottles of wine on board. Shockingly, we were told that the dairy and produce for this NZ/Australia itinerary (our 5 days finishes in Wellington, but the rest of the passengers carry on around the South Island and then on to Sydney) was bought/shipped in from American and Australia, because New Zealand’s exorbitant prices make it prohibitive. We were all outraged (at our country, at Fonterra, at John Key, at whomever didn’t think to offer a bloody good discount in order to ensure NZ got what would have been half a million dollars worth of sale). So this was an eye-opener, too.
Following the galley tour we were naturally hungry, so threw down some bagels and salmon at the Bistro, then caught a shuttle from the ship into Napier. The annual Art Deco festival is in full flight any day now, but since we’ve done Napier before (and had bigger fish to fry/pools to swim in back on board) we spent a quick hour buying wee presents for Y, J and S, then went “home” to relax. A quick dip, another high tea at the Palm Court, and then, with sadness setting in at the knowledge that our time was running out, we returned to our cabin to await Matt and Jan, who popped in for drinks and (extended) nibbles, all laid out by our butler. They were understandably impressed by our digs (they didn’t have a butler on deck 5) and though we quickly assured them we were not a pair of rich, seafaring lesbians (“I’m fine with it!” cried Matt, “I’m in favour of gay marriage!”), we did enjoy sharing our good fortune, ie. prosciutto, melon and five cheeses.
Then, a quick jaunt to the Galaxy Theatre for the evening’s pre-dinner entertainment – Michel Bell, a Tony-award winning singer, previously of the band The Fifth Dimension (you would totally know the songs, even if you don’t know the band name). He put on a great show with his incredible baritone voice, and it was a real treat to have someone of such calibre singing to our crowd.
As a last night treat, our cruise coordinator had secured us a table at Prego again, so we enjoyed another splendid meal (repeating most of the previous choices because they are past compare) and then, feeling a little lacklustre on my part, we went to the piano saloon bar to see Mark the pianist for one last hurrah. I did a flailing rendition of You’re the Top, not a great way to go out, but I couldn’t find the mojo that had been so evident the other nights of the cruise. The Banker headed to Luxe for a last dance with some friends we’d made, while I returned to the cabin, packed my case, and retired.
The rest you know. Wellington dawned sunny and lovely, I have been feeling predictably wobbly walking around on dry land (it can take days to get your land legs back, so I feel a bit jet-lagged) and even as I write, the wonderful life on board the Crystal Symphony is fading into the horizon of my thoughts.
I will get used to paying for my meals again, making my own cups of tea, carrying my own suitcase. But I will be updating my bucket list to ensure I take another jaunt on the Symphony in the future, perhaps in 10 years time as a reunion cruise with our wonderful companions and anyone else who can fork out the dosh for what was truly the time of a life.