Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Crystal Symphony”

A luxury cruise from heaven (Crystal Symphony article)

This article first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times’ Escape Section, 19th May 2013

I’ve dressed up for this. Not being a Frequent Floater (a cruise term), boarding this massive white ship moored in Auckland’s harbour is enormously exciting.

I’m glad I made the effort, because as we step on board, completely unable to appear nonchalant, they take our photo. Proof of my evident delight now sits framed on my desk.

Our fellow travellers on the Crystal Symphony have not taken such pains, but I soon realise this is because most are old hands at this floating hotel business. Still far off Zimmer-frame age, our companions seem mostly of the East Coast of the United States variety, liberal and well heeled.

Over the next five days, we discuss US presidents and New Zealand’s history while lunching al fresco. My heart swells with pride every time someone raves about our country and we take great pleasure offering advice about what our guests should see when they hop off the ship for excursions around Tauranga, Napier and Wellington.

For a five-day cruise, my suitcase is ridiculously large. I have packed six evening dresses – one for each day plus one more for good luck. But that’s not a problem. My suitcase is taken from me when I board and delivered to my cabin soon after by one of the countless crew who are here to ensure we need not lift a finger for the duration.

The word cabin doesn’t really do it justice. It is a penthouse suite, with a veranda, spacious twin beds, a sofa and armchairs, a widescreen television set and a walk-in wardrobe. The bathroom, with twin basins and every kind of Aveda toiletry, is poshness personified, and the lighting is just right, ensuring you look ravishing at all times.

So overawed are we by the opulence that it is several minutes before we notice the welcoming bottle of top-drawer champagne on ice. But before we can think about when to open it, our staff arrive for introductions.

First of all, our maids. This makes one feel terribly Downton Abbey and it does not sit well with one’s socialist principles, last seen somewhere in my flat as I locked the front door behind me.

After checking we have everything we need, Yelena and Joanna vow to return while we are at dinner to turn down our beds.

Before the champagne makes its way from bottle to flute, our butler arrives for his orientation. Sebastian is an avuncular fellow from Alicante in Spain who also speaks heavily accented French and Italian. He is quite literally at our beck and call. This also does not sit well with one’s socialist principles, but when we finally settle on the veranda with champagne glasses in hand and a platter of chocolate-dipped strawberries, we decide what we really need is a cheese platter, and so I call him up. A short while later he arrives with five different cheeses and an assortment of crackers.

This cruise is all inclusive, which means you do not need to think about anything once you are ensconced in cruise life on the Crystal Symphony. Every meal, wherever you choose to eat it, and every drink, from single-malt whisky in the saloon bar to ginger ale by the pool, is included in the price of the trip. I cannot get over how relaxing this is. While it doubtless encourages a degree of gluttony, it is wonderful not to have to worry about scrimping or going over budget.

On the first night, we dine at Silk Road, one of the ship’s two specialty restaurants. From the world-renowned chain created by the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa, we are served some of the best sashimi, sushi, tempura, seafood, fish, steak and other Japanese fare I’ve ever tasted.

Later, at the Avenue Saloon – think Casablanca with fewer palm fronds and more oak panelling – a pianist tinkles the ivories and makes amusing small talk with the punters. He is even gracious enough to allow someone who wouldn’t get through the door of X-Factor to sing a little number. The elderly Americans clap and are sweetly encouraging of my efforts. I could get used to this, and start to idly wonder how to get a job on board.

At Luxe nightclub – all cream leather and pinky-mauve lighting – we have the undivided attention of the DJ and the dancefloor. As we discover, he will rock out some Rick Astley, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Black Eyed Peas if you ask nicely.

After a night on the tiles, a nourishing breakfast is in order. You cannot beat Bistro cafe, a charming French-inspired delicatessen which serves amazing fresh bagels, salmon, cream cheese, jams, muesli, yoghurt and pastries. It is another fine day, so we do a couple of circumnavigations of the Promenade Deck on 5. It is 440 metres around, so it would take 11.4 laps to complete a 5km run, which my friend vows to do. Sadly, I “completely forgot” to bring my running shoes. Nevermind.

On exploring the ship, I am delighted to find the Hollywood Theatre, which screens a different movie each evening, though you can just stay in your cabin and watch it simultaneously on the widescreen TV.

Further entertainment during the cruise includes a performance by one of Australia’s top pianists, a magician, the daily cocktail lounge accompaniment of In-Transit, knocking out The Girl From Ipanema and other cruise hits, and the Route 66 musical show, which showcases a lot of high kicking and excellent singers.

There is also a casino, some posh shops, a modest but slightly heated pool and a fitness centre. Mostly, this vessel seems devoted to ensuring we are well fed and watered, and it is done with aplomb.

All this and we’ve yet to leave Auckland.

You may be thinking “Five nights, Auckland to Wellington? It doesn’t take that long!” Two of those five are spent in Auckland before we head into the open sea and then back towards New Zealand. I know we go at least as far as the border of American Samoa, however, since my phone beeps about 10pm to welcome me to the US.

That evening we dine in the main Crystal Dining Room. Guests are split into early (6.15pm) and late sittings (8.30pm). Several options come under appetiser, entree and main, including low-this-and-that dishes which all look delicious. I opt for chicken broth with a large cheese tortellini, then an exquisite piece of herb-encrusted lemon sole on a dollop of prawn and sweetcorn risotto, with two mange tout and a blanched, skinned cherry tomato. This is accompanied by a fine pinot grigio. Heavenly.

Sailing towards Tauranga the next day, the ship becomes a hive of activity. Everything opens on an At Sea day. The casino is heaving with people bashing away at pokie machines, while other passengers prepare to attend talks on Better Fitness, Knowing your Colours, “What’s So Great About Australia” or somesuchlike (the Crystal Symphony continues on to Sydney after I disembark) and so on.

I already know I am a Summer colour person, so I attend a lecture by a retired US Air Force general about North American Aerospace Defense Command and other agencies tasked with homeland security, as well as actions overseas. The audience seems to be largely ex-US military, so I decide not to ask him whether he thinks the TV series Homeland is accurate.

Each evening we receive a cruise newsletter for the next day, telling us about the shore excursions, listing the many dining options available throughout the day and prescribing the appropriate attire for the following evening. This is usually “Resort Casual”, which suggests women may wear sundresses or pant suits and men can get by with slacks and no jacket, but no-one may wear shorts or baseball caps after 6pm.

We will have one semi-formal, optional black-tie night during our stint on board, but it is great fun to make an effort every night.

So that evening, suitably attired, I leave my companions to pre-dinner drinks and go to experience the magic of Bernard Walz, reputably one of Australia’s best, most awarded, entertaining pianists. He plays a spot of jazz, some movie soundtracks and a classical montage, rounding off with an orchestral version of Bohemian Rhapsody. I sip my champagne and have a wonderful time.

This good mood may explain why, at the ship’s other specialty restaurant, Prego, I order my meals in Italian. My friend orders hers in an Italian accent.

The attentive staff serve us delicious beef carpaccio, mushroom soup in a mini wholemeal loaf, veal scallopine and lasagne. When we deliberate over desserts, they bring us several to share. The souffle al limoncello melts in the mouth.

As with all the meals we have had, the food is sensational and the staff uncompromising in both their attentions and their light-hearted manner. Somehow, it assuages one’s Downton guilt to know the crew are happy in their work. The personal touch is everywhere.

Having eaten and drunk as well as I have anywhere in the world, I can happily say the seafaring life is for me.

The Galley Tour

Having gorged ourselves silly for a few days, we are fortunate enough to receive a galley tour. WHAT an eye-opener.

In the same way I’d joked about there being men in the annals of the ship, shovelling coal into furnaces while we are at sea, I fully expected the ship’s kitchen to be like something out of a Gordon Ramsay TV 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 is an oasis of well-planned, logistically-perfect calm, and we are honoured by an hour of the Executive Chef’s time as he shows us around and answers our enthralled questions.

One thing that has been apparent all along is how happy all the crew seem – and genuinely so, not the tight smiles of retailers in posh department stores. Chef Markus cheerfully explains how he works 3 months (solid, 7 days a week) on, and then has 3 paid months off, living at home in Fiji. Sometimes his wife (and other staff spouses) will live on board, free, for a couple of months. Chef 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 and desserts for every cafe and restaurant on board. Work continues 24/7 in the galley, with people chopping veges and making soups into the wee hours. Bread is baked on board three times a day (the bagels are far and away the best I’ve had anywhere in the world). The ship carries 40,000 bottles of wine.

Shockingly, we are told that the dairy and produce for this NZ/Australia itinerary was bought or shipped in from American and Australia, because New Zealand’s exorbitant prices make it prohibitive. The cruise ship industry being the size it is, it is hard to believe New Zealand isn’t missing a significant opportunity here.

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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.

Life on the ocean waves

Today we are all at sea.

We left Tauranga at 6am, my having assured the Banker that the start-up roar of the engines would be sufficient to wake us, so we could watch Mount Maunganui grow ever smaller as we set out for a whole day (and night) on the ocean. What a lovely start to the day to wake pre-dawn and attend from our verandah. Alas, instead we woke at half past to a gentle purr and found we had long since left the coast. Nothing else for it, then, but to go back to sleep for an hour or so before choosing which of the day’s many shipboard activities to enjoy.

Everything opens on an At Sea day. Suddenly the casino is heaving with surprisingly shabbily-dressed people bashing away at those dreadful pokie machines and winning what looks like a thousand dollars a pop (can this really be so??). You also see all the other passengers who are normally away on shore excursions, queueing up for talks on better fitness, knowing your Colours, What’s So Great About Australia, and so on.

We had breakfast up on the Lido deck, and already the sea was relatively rocky (I am sure proper seafarers would scoff at what is probably only a few knots, but it’s a few knots more than being moored in Auckland so it makes quite a difference). At ten o’clock I went back to the Galaxy Lounge where last night the Aussie pianist regaled us with tales of growing up an over-talented musical prodigy, to listen to a lecture given by retired General Gene Renuart of the US Air Force. 39 years in the force, as fighter pilot and all sorts, he did a Powerpoint presentation about NORAD and other agencies tasked with homeland security as well as actions overseas. It was a curious affair. The audience included a large proportion of ex-military (all US) and the content was very US-centric, which is understandable and I dare say acceptable on a cruise which population is mostly from North America. Gen. Renuart wasn’t massively controversial, but I decided not to ask him what he thought about Homeland as a TV show (in terms of its accuracy, its enormous popularity, etc) and left the Q&A time to other retired military men who wanted to know the General’s thoughts on what sort of threat North Korea and Turkey (!) currently present to the US.

A spot of sushi for lunch, a nap in the rolling waves, then up again for another piece of educational entertainment and my first jaunt to the Galaxy Theatre to sit in comfy leather armchairs and watch a fascinating documentary about Ethel (widow of Bobby) Kennedy, mother of 11 children and powerhouse behind one of the most famous and influential American politicians. It was very moving, very interesting, and indeed very educational. I needed a coffee and scones after that (back to the wonderful Bistro cafe) and then the Banker and I did our 1km around the deck, feeling very much like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in “We’re a Couple of Swells” as we were thrown gently from one side of the deck to the other. Bracing indeed.

Tonight is the Optional Black Tie dinner in the main Crystal Dining Room, so we are rocking out the flash gear (minus headdress) and may attend the after dinner show entitled Route 66 (a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll), except that it’s also Karaoke Night in Luxe nightclub, and one may be tempted. Tomorrow we dock in Napier early morning, and I will gird my loins to actually leave the ship for a few hours.

Making oneself at home on the Crystal Symphony

A brief round-up of yesterday and last night.

After a day at the Mount, a day on which the Banker disembarked into the sunshine to walk around said mountain but I opted to stay on board all day, getting my “exercise” from two laps of the pool in the afternoon sun and 1km around the Promenade deck, we prepared for dinner at the Italian restaurant, Prego.

Each evening we receive a cruise newsletter for the next day, telling us where we are going and when, listing at great length the many dining options for throughout the day (starting with the “Early Risers” (bully for them) coffee and pastries available from 5am, and culminating in bar snacks in the Avenue Saloon at midnight), and prescribing the appropriate attire for the following evening. Mostly this is Resort Casual which suggests ladies may wear sundresses or pant suits (my skin crawls at the term) and men can get by with slacks and no jacket, but absolutely no one may wear shorts or baseball caps after 6pm. Except in their cabin.

We will have one semi-formal, optional black-tie night during our stint on board, but pleasingly our journalistic party seems to relish making some sort of effort every night, so I would non-boastingly classify us more as Elegant Casual.

A friend had made me a Carmen Mirandaesque headdress, replete with brightly coloured fabric roses and chrysanthenums and a tiny butterfly (also not-real), and since I’m not averse to a bit of attention-seeking, I donned this modern update on the fascinator with white dress and colourful shoes. While the others met for pre-dinner drinks at the saloon bar, I took off to experience the magic of Bernard Walz, reputably one of Australia’s best, most awarded, entertaining pianists. He did a spot of jazz (RIP Brubeck), Morricone’s theme tune from the movie Love Affair,  and a montage of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Rounding off with a classical version of Bohemian Rhapsody, he suggested to the audience of old people and me that if we knew bits of the song, we should sing along. Quietly. I know every word, so sang along under my breath, loving every minute.

Then to the bar to meet my pals, who had told the other pianist (from Night One) that I was “cheating on him” by watching the Aussie. He obviously didn’t bear a grudge as he invited me to do another number with him after our dinner.

Prego was superb. Fantastically attentive staff (from Portugal, Hungary and other non-Italian-speaking countries, who nonetheless spoke bits of Italian) served us delicious beef carpaccio, mushroom soup made of five types and served in a mini wholemeal loaf, and (for me) veal scallopine at limone, and many of the others lasagne. I ordered my meals in Italian; the Banker ordered hers in an Italian accent. When we deliberated over which dessert to order, they brought us several, so I had souffle al limoncello (my favourite liqueur) as well as an affogato (my favourite dessert of any kind). We drank sangiovese and a lovely Italian white I’d not heard of before which is, apparently, very hard to come by.

As with all the meals we’ve had on this ship, the food was sensational, and the staff uncompromising in both their attentions and the light-hearted manner in which they recommend dishes and joke with us.

As soon as dinner was over, feeling distinctly second-windish thanks to the espresso in my dessert, we made our way back to the Avenue Saloon where Mark (pianist no. 1) was conducting a game of “Name That Song” with a packed audience. We budged in by a friendly Jewish couple from Fortworth, Texas, and sang along to the show tunes as Mark read out the answers. Once over, most of the older people went to bed, so I did my rendition of Big Spender to the small but loyal crowd of my fellow media team and two sets of other punters who had stuck around thinking, perhaps because of the headdress, that I must be a paid-up part of the entertainment crew. They were most encouraging, and before long we were all up doing songs and having a great time. Bernard even stuck his head in and was cajoled into doing Bohemian Rhapsody so we could sing our lungs out properly. Who needs karaoke when you’ve got (two) real guy(s)?

To bed, into a deep sleep, and then a proper day at sea began.

Eating, drinking and being merry

Some of you may be wondering what one eats on a trip like this. (I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the champagne already?)

After the Nobu experience on night one, we did bagels and coffee for breakfast, then had a light but nutritious lunch of self-composed salad (every ingredient under the sun) though other guests were seen queueing for soup, a carvery and curry with rice. Trickily, and to what end I know not, they lay out the dessert bar at the beginning of your obligatory recce – perhaps so you know how much room to leave for that miniature creme brulee, that tiny lime jelly, the mini chocolate roulade. We ate overlooking Auckland’s Hilton hotel, cleverly designed to look like a ship itself. I forewent the champagne, making friends instead with ginger ale.

Then at 3.30 we did high tea (see previous post), purposely not going overboard (pun acknowledged) so we would have room for whatever amuse-bouche Sebastian would bring us at 6pm, as the ship left port (in lieu of prawn cocktail, we opted for guacamole and corn chips).

Dinner was in the main Crystal Dining room, where guests are split into early (6.15) and late sittings (we young folk were automatically given the 8.30 slot). You are given several (maybe four?) options under Appetiser, Entree, Main, including low-this-and-that alternatives which all look delicious. I went for a chicken broth with one large cheese tortellini (delish) to get me started, then straight into an exquisite piece of herb-encrusted lemon sole on a dollop of prawn and sweetcorn risotto, with two mange tout (perhaps more aptly therefore “mange deux”) and a blanched, skinned cherry tomato. Heavenly. This was accompanied by a glass of pinot grigio (going easy after the Night Before). The Banker said her steak was so succulent you hardly needed to touch it with a knife before it melted on consumption. She drank a syrah/grenache blend.

At this point I should probably admit that I was raised on large portion sizes and to finish everything on the plate. My fish and risotto looked a little, well, modest when it was served, and as I thoroughly enjoyed every morsel for a moment there I wondered whether it would be the done thing to order another. Thank heavens I didn’t say this out loud, because given pause I rapidly realised I was indeed sated, and ready for just the tiniest wee sweet something to round things off.

The dessert menu is considerably longer. Overwhelmed by the promise of chocolate mousse roulades and blueberry crumbles and sugar-free banana loaf, I went for two scoops of ice cream (so that’s what cookie dough is all about), and a greedy attempt at an Austrian dessert wine “just because you can”.

Tonight we are booked into the other specialty restaurant, Prego. I love Italian more than anything, my favourite restaurant at home being called Prego, so once I have taken in the pre-dinner performance of Australia’s most talented pianist, I will be very ready to see how my shipboard equivalent compares. Oh, wait – that’s after Sebastian brings us our cheese plate to accompany the bottle of bubbles cooling in our fridge.

Getting into the swing of life aboard the Crystal Symphony

I suppose it was inevitable we’d get a bit carried away on the first night. Champagne, chocolate-dipped strawberries, a cheese platter and our general overexcitement meant that by the time we dressed up and met our travel companions in the Palm Court at 7:30pm, we’d made a jolly good start.

Our “select group of media” includes a journo from a rival newspaper and his wife, and a couple who publish a flash magazine. The six of us met our Cruise Coordinator for yet more complimentary champers (I should note at this stage that this cruise is All Inclusive – perhaps the way of it for all cruise lines nowadays, but certainly “in my day” – ie. my brief experience on a pretty impressive but OMG-nowhere-near-as-flash-as-this ship in 2000 – we were packed to the gunnels with fine food, but made to pay (a lot) for the wine. Perhaps considering the price of these cruises (I actually don’t know and wouldn’t speculate, but this isn’t called a six-star ship for nothing), it’s only fair to make it a freeforall).

So we chatted and got to know our new buddies, before heading to one of the two specialist restaurants on board – Silk Road. Run/inspired by/created? by the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa, it is (obviously) Japanese, and serves up absolutely some of the best sashimi, sushi, tempura, seafood, fish, steak and other Japanese fare I’ve ever tasted. Sensational. So good that one couple returned the following night, while the rest of us went to the main, large restaurant.

After Silk Road we went to the wee piano bar – think Casblanca with fewer palm fronds and more oak panelling – where a live pianist (I love saying that – my mum is obsessed with “live” pianists, and my father always jokes about the dead ones) tinkled the ivories and made amusing small talk with us punters. I don’t know what possessed me – well I do, it’s the ship board “I’m on holiday” feeling that has permeated already – but I asked him to play I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and I got up and sang. It wasn’t quite like when I’m in my car, more’s the pity, but I got claps from lots of middle-aged to elderly Americans, and my group were sufficiently supportive. Karaoke doesn’t happen until Sat night (formal night) so I’ve got that out of my system till then.

And then our core group of party-harders went on to nightclub Luxe, decored in cream leather with pinky-mauve lighting, where we had the undivided attention of the DJ and the dancefloor. Following some shared moments with Rick Astley, Europe and Guns ‘n’ Roses, we finally realised it was time for bed and made our way down the narrow corridors to the welcoming arms of those crisp-but-cloudlike sheets.

And that was just Night 1. We have a day in Auckland (still!) tomorrow. I think I will forgo the tourist jaunts up Mt Eden or over to historic Devonport, and make the most of shipboard life.

What a swell party this is – Day 1 Proper on the Crystal Symphony

I hardly need tell you that after the “I’m on a boat!” exhilaration of the first night, Day 1 proper was a slow start.

The Banker and I went down to the Bistro cafe for breakfast mid-morning, a charming (in a nice, not patronising, way) French-inspired deli which serves up pretty good coffee and Totally Amazing fresh bagels, salmon, tomato, cream cheese, jams, muesli, yoghurt and pastries. We then did a couple of circumnavigations of the Promenade Deck on 5. It is 440m around, so would take the Banker 11.4 laps to complete a 5km run, which she vows to do. There is a sign stating “Today’s Direction” as you step onto the deck, and I doubt anyone dares to go against the flow. As it turns out, we didn’t pass anyone other than maintenance men standing around peering at the rigging that lowers the lifeboats (try not to be alarmed), but perhaps some days deck 5 is flooded with eager promenaders.

Speaking of our fellow passengers – they seem to be keeping a pretty low profile. Of course, we are still in Auckland for the day, so most people go out on one of the many available shore excursions. I’m not averse to trekking around foreign cities when I’m on holiday, but gosh it’s nice to smugly say “Been there, done that” and only have to decide where to eat lunch, what time to go up to the pool, and which book to take.

We explored the ship when we first came on board, and I was delighted to see the Hollywood Cinema/Theatre which screens someone’s bizarre movie choice each evening (tonight Morgan Freeman stars in The Magic of Belle Isle. I know a little about film and I have to say this isn’t one of his biggest hits of the last few years, but having IMDbed it, I see it is about a wheelchair-bound author who re-comes of age. There may be some subtle audience-appropriate decision-making here, so I can’t fault it, other than to say I won’t be going).

Better than that, though, we have one of Australia’s most entertaining and talented pianists performing one evening, a magician, the usual cocktail lounge accompaniment of In-Transit (knocking out The Girl From Ipanema and other cruise hits) and apparently The Big Show, though I am yet to discover when that is on or what it will entail. There is also a casino (quite subtle, thankfully, and thus far completely empty every time I’ve been past), some posh shops (all closed each time I pass) and a gym/fitness center. The usual suspects. Mostly this vessel seems devoted to ensuring we are well-fed and watered, and they do it with aplomb.

After lunch in the Lido resturant at the aft of the ship (handily just above our penthouse cabin) we went to the swimming pool. A modest size pool that doesn’t lend itself to laps, it is salt water and heated ever-so-slightly so that it is always perfectly enticing. The sun was shining brightly anyway, so despite still being moored in downtown Auckland and thus knowing I could drive home in about 15 minutes, I felt totally on holiday. I hauled my happy self off the sun lounger at one point to go up to the very top deck to wave at another working friend who was heading home on the ferry (me: swimsuit, sarong and floppy hat, gesticulating wildly; her: black work dress, wistful wave). Then back to my book.

3:30pm we dried off sufficiently to head into the Palm Court for high tea. In-Transit provided the tunes, and a miscellany of the 45 nationalitied staff brought round little sandwiches, scones, Earl Grey tea and a happy countenance. (Actually, I could have been projecting my own happy countenance – the Banker and I spend most of our time grinning and going “can you believe this??” so it’s hard to tell where the staff’s genuine warmth ends and my own contented haze begins.)

By 5pm we were showered and dressed in time for the compulsory lifeboat drill. The Banker has already informed me that if we go the way of the Titanic, she’s getting the door. Which means I’ll have to get used to the lifejacket, which is surprisingly uncomfortable as we put them on in our cabins and wait patiently for the warning horn to sound. Once again our cabin is well situated, as we only need pop down a few flights of stairs (outside, of course – no using the lift in an emergency) and our lifeboat, no. 10, is first up. We were herded into lines by our lifeboat captain (one of the more senior crew members who later sat us at our table at dinner) and our cabin numbers ticked off the manifest by a spiky-haired Australian. By then I felt sure I’d need chiropractic realigning when I get home, so it was good to shrug those off and return them to the shelf in our walk-in wardrobe.

Finally, at 6pm, it was time to leave Auckland. The weather couldn’t have been more stunning, Auckland’s already beautiful harbour backlit by the soon-to-be-setting sun as we rounded North Head and darted down between the East Coast Bays (where I am from) and Rangitoto Island. And then, out into the high seas as we prepared for drinks and dinner. This time, a much more low-key evening was had by all participants, as we enjoyed very fine food and comparatively little wine in the main dining room. Back to the cabin for an early night, as our ship purred across the ocean bound for Tauranga.

(I know what you’re thinking. 5 nights, Auckland to Wellington?? It doesn’t take that long! Hence 2 nights spent in Auckland, and now a jaunt that really ought to take only a few hours to Tauranga, but which is instead going to take all night. I baulked initially at the ineffeciency of it all – the fuel costs! The time! – when I realised that we do in fact head right out into open seas and then come back in. However, apparently this is often preferable to paying expensive port fees – hence, ships like to spend as much time at sea as possible. I don’t know how far out we went, but around 10pm my phone beeped to tell me “Welcome to the USA” and lay out the text/call costs! By 5:30am we were woken by the rumbling of our ship coming into dock at Tauranga (actually Mount Maunganui), so Captain Zander and his crew obviously made the most of their time on the ocean waves.)

Lina ships out – Cruising on the Crystal Symphony

I’ve dressed up for this.

I know how it goes – I’ve seen Titanic, and although I am not wearing a large hat and didn’t arrive by chaffeur-driven car (well, the Banker drove us but she’s a mate, not staff), I thought there was a chance they would take our photo as we go up the gangway, so I thought it best to be prepared. Hence new navy blazer over my arm (it is, of course, far too hot to actually put it on) and I am wearing a skirt.

I note my fellow passengers haven’t. Either they’ve done this many times before and know there ain’t no photographer, or they are the über-rich you see travelling the world, ironically dressed far more scruffily than those of us for whom a five-night, all-expenses-paid cruise in a massive Finnish ship is the most exciting thing we’ll do all year. And it’s only January.

The cruise brochure states that our Deluxe Stateroom with Verandah provides bathrobe, slippers, kimono, toiletries, and an umbrella. The latter looks to be pretty surplus to requirements, since Auckland has been sporting sensational sunny weather for what feels like months now, and the forecast till Sunday (even in Wellington) looks great.

Check in isn’t much like it was on Titanic, as it turns out. Though I did hand my ridiculously large suitcase (six dresses for a five-night stay! Well, you never know what’s going to be called for) over to a lady with a trustworthy face, and it was delivered, in due course, to my cabin by one of the countless crew who are evidently here to ensure we needn’t lift our own finger for the next week. 

Deluxe Stateroom turns out to be Penthouse (with Verandah) on the next floor up. (Wait – is it a “floor” on a ship? The Banker keeps calling the cabin our “room” but I correct her.) Anyway, so overawed are we at our enormous good fortune (like a free cruise isn’t lucky enough), it takes several minutes before she exclaims “Oh my God, there’s champagne!” – and sure enough, there is a bottle of Billecart-Salmon on ice. I know instantly that this is proper champers (it must have been in a movie somewhere) but before we can think about when to open it, our staff arrive for introductions.

First off, our maids. (Is it alright to call them maids?? One feels terribly Downton, and this doesn’t sit very well with one’s socialist principles, last seen somewhere in my flat as I shut the front door.) Yelena is from Croatia; Joanna from Poland. They have upgraded our cabin but forgotten to ensure we have twin beds, so Y and J will return while we’re at dinner, to split the one into two, replete with down pillows and crisp-yet-cloud-like cotton sheets. The bathroom (a basin each, and more toiletries than one can fit into an already overstuffed suitcase) is poshness personified, the fittings gleaming and the lighting Just Right so you look ravishing at all times of the day and night.

Before the Billecart makes its way from bottle to flute, our butler arrives for his orientation. Sebastian is from Alicante, but thoughtfully spent most of his childhood in the Midi in France, so speaks French with that heavy accent, and Italian too. We chat away, the Banker most tolerant of my overexcited efforts to tell him about the cruise I did when I was younger (more about that in another post). Sebastian is quite literally at our beck and call, which doesn’t sit very well with one’s socialist principles, but what can you do – when he has departed and we finally settle on the verandah with champagne glasses clinking, we decide what we really need is a cheese platter, and so I call him up. A short while later he arrives with five different cheeses and an assortment of crackers. I feel bad for taking him away from whatever else he was doing, but I am sure these qualms will abate over the next few days.

Pre-dinner drinks cannot be more delightful than from a tall ship, overlooking the Auckland ferry terminal and watching the wee boats flit in and out. Somewhere, on one of them, my friend is making her way home from work. We wave at a few travellers who gamely return our wave, no doubt assuming we are rich Americans. That’s OK with me. I’m living a whole other life and I think I could get used to this.

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