Notes from the Cook Islands: A first visit to Aitutaki

 

 

large_onefootpalm               pam at big foot             sunset

Aitutaki is a surprise. This is my first visit to the second-most-visited island in the Cook Islands and I find it less developed, less populated, less prosperous than expected. There are two big resorts and a handful of smaller ones, plus a variety of self-catering bungalows, beach huts and lodges, but compared with Rarotonga where the whole coastline is dotted with tourist accommodation, Aitutaki is sparsely developed. For an island which dines out on the 2010 comment of Lonely Planet-founder, Tony Wheeler, who described Aitutaki as “the most beautiful island in the world”, I had expected more tourist buzz, more building going on, new places opening.

Aitutaki reputedly has better weather than Rarotonga, more sun and less rain. They are probably equal in the wind stakes however, and often you will find one side of the island is calm while the other is being buffeted. The problem is, it’s impossible to predict which will be the calm side when you make your bookings. That’s why it’s clever to hire scooters or a car so you can travel (in 10 to 20 minutes) to the other side for beach activities. This time in Aitutaki we were lucky. We stayed on the west side which was beautifully sheltered.

pam on beach

Autitaki is perfect for a peaceful escape from the world, in luxury if you choose. The slow pace is marvellous for the visitor seeking quiet and solitude, but it doesn’t do much for the locals who look as though they could do with more dollars in their pockets. The population is down below 2000. Houses are basic. Running water is not taken for granted, hot water is a luxury. Ironically the majority of these flimsy houses were damaged or destroyed in Cyclone Pat in 2010, the same year the Lonely Planet man made his oft-quoted comment.

church Extreme weather does not bother the substantial churches which are everywhere in Aitutaki. The most impressive, and the oldest (built in the 1820s) is the Cook Islands Congregational Church in the main village, Arutanga, a main road with a roundabout which the locals call, in a slight exaggeration, Town. The day we attend the CICC Sunday service, a new minister is being welcomed. He and his wife drive away in a shiny new double-cab ute. Most parishioners travel by motor-scooter, and they can choose between the pretty coral and limestone CICC church, or the equally solid premises of the Latter Day Saints, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, the Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic and the Baha’i Faith.church interior

The churches surely have more money than the ordinary people, but money is not the driving force here. There is no fishing or agricultural industry. The best jobs are in government, and most resorts and restaurants report difficulty in finding local staff. Waitresses, cleaners, security and grounds staff are brought in from Rarotonga, Fiji and Vanuatu. A woman who runs a simple garden café tells us she is closed at the moment because she can’t find a waitress to take orders and serve the food.

Having said that, Trip Advisor is full of praise for the Aitutaki locals who run the small accommodation units on their family land. Hard-working, generous, helpful, they say. And the few strong, slim attractive young local women among the staff at our resort are a delight.

Health problems no doubt contribute to the difficulties of local people who are not seeking employment. Obesity, with its associated diabetes, heart disease and stroke risk, is rife. More than half the population of the Cook Islands is classified obese by the WHO. Some reports say more than 90 percent of the people are overweight.  The problem is starkly obvious on Aitutaki where a slim and fit person stands out. Waitressing, gardening and cleaning jobs at resorts and restaurants are hard work: obese people are often not capable of doing them.

The cause of the problem is lack of physical activity (a fishing charter skipper says no one walks even short distances these days, everyone hops on a scooter), and a diet heavy in canned corned beef, Spam and other cheap processed fatty food. I watch teenagers in the Town, each downing a 2-litre bottle of bright lime green fizzy drink.  It’s cheaper than bottled water.

None of this is to say Don’t Go.  Absolutely you should go. I can’t disagree with anyone who says it’s the most beautiful island in the world. aitutaki

Floating around the lagoon, any part of it, with a mask and snorkel is magical. Take a boat to offshore motu to swim with giant trevally and gaze down on massive clams.

I had been wanting to visit Aitutaki for 30 years, alerted to it by reading it was the favourite holiday destination of gone-but-not-forgotten New Zealand  Prime Minister David Lange. Somehow I felt the place would be much developed and much changed by 2016, but I doubt it is. Perhaps a little more accommodation, including a couple of really posh resorts and a luxury retreat, but no more infrastructure, little in the way of ‘progress’ in the life of the people.

Travel writer Paul Theroux wrote about encountering Lange on the beaches of Aitutaki in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania, published 1992.  Theroux quotes Lange as saying the reason the Cooks have retained their character is because they are owned by the islanders. Not one acre has been sold to a foreigner.  The manager of best resort on Aitutaki says the same thing: he reckons New Zealand should have made that rule a long time ago.  (The island owners lease their land to resorts.)

What to do? Just chill. Loll in that wondrous lagoon. The cruise boats will take you to the little motu of Akaiamu, where the Teal flying boats on the famous Coral Route used to stop in the 1950s, en route to Tahiti. Or walk to the highest point on Aitutaki, Maunga Pu, which is only 123 metres above sea level. A puffy but quick walk for a 360-degree view.Maunga Pu

Where to Stay?  Pacific resortThe Pacific Resort, luxury, well-reviewed, expensive. Ditto Aitutaki Escape, a small luxury adults-only retreat. On the opposite side of the island is Aitutaki Beach Resort and Spa, situated on the most beautiful part of the lagoon. In between, cost-wise, are Tamanu and Etu Moana, and there are myriad other mostly self-catering options.

Eat.  Our favourite restaurant find was Tupuna’s, in the centre of the island. (Tupuna used to look after the aforementioned David Lange, back in the day).  She is a trained chef and has a restaurant-grade kitchen at the front of her house. TupunasTables are set under a canopy in her garden, sand underfoot. Tupuna’s mud-crab is apparently not to be missed. I settled for her ika mata, which was best version of the Cook Islands’ raw fish salad I’ve ever tasted.

Book a table. It might look laid-back and ultra-casual but Tupuna’s fame has spread, and she feeds only about 20 people per night.

The restaurant at the Pacific Resort is very good.  Outside that, there are a handful of dining options which we found to be mostly average. Prices are about the same as in New Zealand cafes and restaurants.

Stopping over in Rarotonga? I have two eating places to recommend. For dinner, Kikau Hut.kikau hutWe went there twice because the food and atmosphere were so appealing. And The Mooring Fish Café for lunch. Here you eat seafood burgers or salads prepared in a shipping container at the wharf. Look them up – both places are on Facebook. Mooring

Next time: I want to do a Plantation House Dinner. Minar Purotu Henderson and Louis Enoka host a feast at their home about once a month. The evening involves a tour of their garden where most of the dinner comes from. They say that 98 percent of the food on offer is island-grown or caught. The couple has worked around the world, managing and cooking in hotels and resorts. Now they have returned to their homestead, one of Rarotonga’s oldest, built in 1853.  Eat at long tables on their veranda.  Book direct with Minar at iliving@oyster.net.ck    (They have a market stall and a small gift shop called Island Living.)

That’s all. I can’t wait to go back.            aitutaki beach

 

Venice: Discovering a local legend

Published in NZ Sunday Star Times, October 4 2015

After an unpromising start, Pam Neville discovers an extraordinary restaurant hiding in Venice      

da marisa 1

“We are closed,” snaps an unwelcoming woman as we stick our noses into an unpretentious little restaurant fronting one of the quieter canals of Venice. It’s late afternoon and the door is open, but there is no opening for conversation.

We ask, politely, if she has a menu so we can decide whether to come back for dinner?

“No. We have no menu.”

Giving up and walking on seems the best option, but then our matriarch offers a morsel of information.

“Tonight, there will be fish.”

Directly opposite the nondescript doorway of the little restaurant, on the opposite side of the canal, is our hotel. Later in the evening, tired and hungry, we ask the receptionist whether this surreptitious little hole-in-the-wall across the canal is worth trying. The receptionist’s face lights up.

“The best in town! If you get the chance you should go!”

She is doubtful we will get the chance, as it’s almost dinner time already, but she telephones just in case. Yes, they can take us. We must go now, she says. They are waiting for us, and they won’t keep the table for long. Back we trudge, over the charming little arched bridge to the other side of the canal.

A pleasant young man greets us and sits us canal-side at inexpensive and slightly flimsy aluminium chairs and tables which have sprouted up along the canal path.IMG_0096

canale di cannaregioWithin minutes, all the tables are full with groups of laughing, hugging, chattering Italians. For many in this university/residential area north of the Piazza San Marco, this is their local.

At Da Marisa, or Dalla Marisa, or Tratoria da’a Marisa, depending on your dialect, the rules are simple. You arrive at 8pm on the dot (if you don’t, they will give your table to someone else), you sit down and eat whatever Marisa and her family decide to serve you, and you pay a set price – cash only – of 35 euro per person, which includes the wine.

“What sort of wine would you like?” asks the young man.  We begin to suggest perhaps a pinot grigio when he clarifies. “We have two kinds, white or red.”

It’s the Henry Ford approach, says my companion. You can have whatever car you want, so long as it’s a black Model T.

We choose the white. It comes in carafes, slightly foaming at the top, from big beer taps at the counter.

“Drink as much as you like”, says our waiter, cheerfully slapping down a second carafe. “We might start charging after you have drunk five litres.” He’s joking.  Or perhaps he thinks we are Australians.

And then the food starts coming. It is indeed fish, course after course of fish, with a creamy, swirly plate of polenta the only side dish. There may have been bread – I can’t remember -but there was so much fish that anything extra was unnecessary.

“Codfish”, announces the waiter as he smacks one of his armload of plates onto the table. After the lightly salted cod comes sea bass carpaccio, marinated in lemon and olive oil and garnished with roasted red capsicum. In quick succession comes more armloads of dishes and large servings. Baby octopus in a spicy red wine sauce, and stuffed mussels in their shells. Fish lasagne, silky and delicate yet filling, the stand-out dish of the night. Finally a platter announced simply as “fried fish”. There are squid, prawns and tiny flatfish.

Although we started out hungry, it is difficult to eat so much fish in one sitting. But our Italian neighbours do. There is not a scrap left on any plate. To finish off, we all have mascarpone with biscotti and amaretto to dip, and of course espresso, all part of the set price.

As quickly as it began, our evening is over. The whirl of laughter, chatter and hugs is now filtered through cigarette smoke as the locals untie their dogs from table legs and disappear into the darkness. It has been a two-hour fish frenzy, an extravaganza of seafood served in the simplest of manners.

Next morning, the tables and chairs have disappeared from beside the canal, Marisa’s door is shut, and there is only the faintest little painted sign to suggest that an extraordinary restaurant hides within. But every local, and quite a few tourists, know about Da Marisa. In 1965, Marisa opened her restaurant to feed workers along the canal, specialising in cheap cuts of meat from a nearby abattoir, and fish from the lagoon 100 metres or so along the Canale di Cannaregio. Today, it’s still a family affair with Marisa’s daughter Wanda running the kitchen. I don’t know whether the unsmiling woman of our first encounter was Marisa, or Wanda, or neither of them, but she was almost certainly a family member.

Venice is famous for its fish restaurants. Whether Da Marisa is “the best in town” as the hotel receptionist claimed, I have no idea. But the place is certainly a local legend, and it provided a couple of tourists from New Zealand with a wonderful food memory of Venice.

Da Marisa, 652b Cannaregio. The restaurant is open for dinner at 8pm several days of the week. On other days, it opens for lunch. Usually fish is served for dinner and meat for lunch. Bookings are essential, unless you are lucky. There is no website so it is probably wise to ask your hotel to book.

The hotel across the canal is Carnival Palace, www.carnivalpalace.com carnival palace hotelIf you fancy something closer to Piazza San Marco, and self-catering, try Ca’Grisostomo, a canal-front apartment owned by Aucklanders. www.cagrisostomo.com

Nearby: Mojita Bar, just along from Carnival Palace, is a tiny canal-side bar serving food all day, and always the classic Venetian aperitif, Spritz, made with Aperol. Around the corner heading to Piazza San Marco, at Cannaregio 1355, is Rizzo San Leonardo bakery, one of the most famous pastry shops of Venice. Pastries are made from recipes a century old, and Rizzo also has wine, bread, and ready-made lunch food.mojita bar

Tip: Choose your Venice accommodation based on transport. Hauling luggage long distances over paving stones is difficult, and water taxis are expensive. Try to be near a water bus stop for cheap, efficient travel. For transport from the airport, try to be within easy reach of an Alilaguna stop. www.alilaguna.it

What to do next? Venice is a launching point for many cruise ship itineraries. The writer joined Seadream 1, one of only two small ships owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club, to sail towards Croatia and Greece. Small ‘boutique’ liners allow guilt-free cruising along the Guidecca Canal past Piazza San Marco. Bitter argument continues about giant cruise ships sailing close to the square and creating wash which damages the fragile old city. Venetian protesters swam in the Guidecca Canal to stop the passage of cruise liners in 2013, and the large ships were banned for several months from November 2014. Now the ban is lifted but protest continues, aimed at ships weighing over 96,000 tonnes. Fortunately our little Seadream weighs only 4300 tonnes, and makes little more wash than George Clooney’s wedding procession. www.seadream.com SeaDream

Ahoy, Birthday on Board

Story published in the NZ Sunday Star Times, August 31, 2015
In a fantasy worthy of Game of Thrones, Pam Neville throws a birthday party on the best little cruise ship in the world

Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, is bursting at the seams. Tourists are cramming the marble streets and narrow stone stairways, making no impact of course on the mighty walls, up to 25 metres high and six metres thick, which enclose the old town. Walking around the top of the walls is tourist attraction number one.Seadream in Croatia We are here because Dubrovnik is beautiful, a World Heritage site, a sea fortress with magnificent churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. But many of us are thinking not so much medieval history as Game of Thrones as we wander around. The television fantasy series has done for Croatian tourism what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Fans of GoT are flocking to filming locations throughout Croatia, and multiple tour businesses have sprung up to guide them.
The city of Dubrovnik is King’s Landing, capital of Westeros. Scenes shot in Dubrovnik feature in most episodes. In a crush of other tourists, it’s easy to visit Pile Gate, site of the peasants’ dung-hurling revolt against the evil king Joffrey, to stroll Gradac Park, the location for Joffrey’s ill-fated wedding celebration, and to search for the steps and stairways where Cersei was forced to do her walk of shame in the final of series 5.
Amidst this Game of Thrones fantasy, I’m caught up in a make-believe of my own. It’s my birthday (or nameday, as they would call it in Westeros) and – although Games of Thrones seldom gives anyone cause for celebration – I’m daydreaming an epic party.
Would you believe I have 100 friends and family with me. We are partying up a storm on a small cruise ship hired just for us. After Dubrovnik, the route is flexible. She who pays the bill gets to choose where we go (in consultation with the captain of course). If the wind changes direction, we follow suit. So it’s always smooth sailing.
SeaDream entering Kotor, MontenegroWe slip into Kotor, Montenegro, for my guest who is a country-counter. She doesn’t mind which country we go to, so long as she hasn’t been there before. Another pin in the world map on her wall at home. Montenegro is a beautiful little country bordered all around by Croatia. It is not universally popular with its neighbour as it supported Serbia during the 1990s war.

My dream itinerary takes us from the Adriatic Sea through the Corinth Canal to the Aegean Sea. Imagine my floating birthday party stopping off in Santorini for the friend who has always wanted to see that Greek island of cliff-hugging sugar-cube houses, interspersed with the bright blue domes of churches. Recall any iconic photograph of the Greek islands and it will almost certainly have been snapped on Santorini.

We call at Hydra, an island of no vehicles where donkeys are the main form of transport and superyachts tie up in the circular harbour. 

IMG_0491My celebrity-spotting friends will like Hydra. Apparently Mick Jagger and Keith Richards come here. We should stop off at the island of Paros as well. Madonna is a regular here. Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt enjoy Antiparos, a little island nearby. We can anchor-off and take the tender ashore.
A Christian cousin, well-versed in theology, votes for the island of Patmos. He wants to visit the cave where John the Evangelist wrote his Book of Revelations. Towering above is the enormous Monastery of St John, staffed by brusque monks. Be modestly dressed, do not take photos, and do not chatter loudly or you might be yelled at by a black-bearded, black-clad monk who appears from the shadows. Enough to make my birthday party-goers scurry back to our personal luxury super-yacht.
And once aboard, we partake of all-day champagne and nibbles, sundowners on the top deck, cocktails, gourmet meals, and endless attention from the 95 staff. (That’s almost one staffer per guest.) The charming young man delivering my rum punch at the pool asks quietly, “May I clean your sunglasses, Madame?”, and produces a small spray bottle and cloth. Most of my guests are at the age of reading glasses, and at the age of forgetting them. Never fear, a waiter is quickly to hand with a display case of spectacles of varying strength, so everyone can read the multi-course options on the three different menus at dinner.
Fans of antiquity dictate we stop the boat at Itea on the Greek mainland for a tour to the Oracle of Delphi. If you see only one ancient site in Greece, this should be it, so the onboard adviser says. Cruise director Hayden McFarlane is from Waitara, Taranaki, the only Kiwi in a multi-national crew. He is busy signing passengers for future cruises, offering hefty discounts for booking onboard. Hayden recommends my birthday party should also nip into the port of Kusadasi in Turkey, to see Ephesus, another not-to-be-missed site for our classical scholars.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Most of the above is true. I am not kidding about my birthday, and I am celebrating aboard the Best Small Luxury Cruise Ship of 2015, according to the prestigious Forbes Life awards. The islands and countries are true, and Hayden from Waitara is real. The fantasy involves my 100 best buddies. Sadly, they are not with me.
I’m sailing around the Greek Islands, and along the Croatian coast, on Seadream 1, one of two small ships belonging to Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club. We are ‘Yachting, not Cruising’, according to the company slogan. Such a small vessel – it’s a yacht in the same mode as the Royal Yacht Britannia, in fact a large motor cruiser – can go to ports the cruise liners can’t fit into. Getting on and off is easy, with no queues. A fleet of bikes is off-loaded each day, and a pop-out marina at the stern provides swimming and watersports including yachts, paddleboards and jet-skis. The dress code is ‘yacht casual’ and the style is laid-back luxury.
Had I been able to front up with half a million dollars, I could have taken my 100 best friends and chosen our itinerary, even our food and drink menus and entertainment, for a week of cruising – sorry, yachting.
What they call “whole-of-yacht charters” are popular. People regularly hire Seadream 1 or Seadream 2 for a few days, or a week or more, for birthday parties, weddings, and business outings. An Australian car dealership takes its best staff and clients every year. Sailing in July this year, an elegant clipper moored near us at the island of Rab, Croatia, is a ‘nude cruise’, hired by a group of naturists. Only the staff wear clothes. Rumour has it that Seadream can also be hired by the unclad, but it’s difficult to imagine the crew of perfectly dressed stewards and demure housemaids waiting on the stark naked.
On my cruise, there is a European couple who look on Seadream as their holiday home. They have each spent more than 250 nights aboard, and I work out they would have spent about half a million dollars so far. They were aboard in July, and had booked to return in August. Where would Seadream take them this time? They didn’t know, or care. Simply being aboard was everything.
A week, or two, pass in a flash when you are celebrating a big birthday on a luxury yacht – with or without your best friends. I highly recommend it. Dreams are free.
santorini 3

Top Tip: If you are sailing along the Croatian coast, pre-book your cabin on the side of the boat facing the coastline. It’s magical to wake up to a new stunning view each day.

Greece: Dancing till the sun shines

greece now IMG_0007 IMG_0013 IMG_0009

Everyone wants euros. They accept credit cards in most places, but cash is king. The banks are closed. Greek people can withdraw a maximum of 60 euros per day from an ATM. Some ATMs run dry, many are out of 10-euro notes with the effect that people can withdraw only 50 euros.

This is not a problem for tourists. With a foreign card, we can withdraw as much as we like. Only once did I experience an empty ATM, but the machine around the corner obliged.

On the five Greek islands I visited in July, the locals were uniformly smiling and welcoming, but concerned and eager to talk about Greece’s economic woes. To a man and woman – whether they had voted yes or no in the referendum on the bail-out – they said “We don’t know what will happen”. The bail-out deal is signed and the banks are open, albeit with severe restrictions on money transfer and withdrawals, but people are still saying the same thing. There is no confidence that Greece will cope with the new austerity and debt-payment regime, but it’s universally agreed that keeping the tourists coming is vital.

Our young female hotelier on Santorini, with an economics degree from Athens university, is aghast at the bail-out. She was an Oxi, or no, voter and wants to dump the euro and return to the drachma. Rich European nations, especially the hard-bargaining Germans, are to blame for Greece’s plight, she says. (A recent story in a British newspaper about anti-German sentiment in Greece was headed ‘Don’t tell the cook we’re German’.

The hotelier’s views are the direct opposite of the academic archaeologist who led a tour of Delphi on the Greek mainland a few days earlier. He believed leaving the Eurozone would be folly. “So long as the tourists come, we will work our way out of this,” he said.

“We are not complaining,” says the rental car man who furnishes a small Hyundai to drive around the island of Paros. That night in Naoussa (the best coastal town to stay in on Paros, by the way) a festival of dancers from around Greece welcomes the summer. Introducing the performers, a woman describes the current crisis as “Greece’s darkest hour in 40 years” – a reference to the Colonels’ Coup of 1967-74 – but it doesn’t stop the Greeks dancing to welcome the sun.

IMG_0014  IMG_0584  hydra pic 1

There are no figures yet to suggest tourist numbers are down this summer but some popular places seem to me to be pleasantly uncrowded. Not the hotspots like Santorini and Mykonos, however. When cruise ships are in port, it’s difficult to move in the village of Oia on Santorini. This is where the iconic photographs of Greek islands are taken, showing sugar-cube houses interspersed with blue-domed churches.

Extra direct flights from Britain have kept up the numbers on Mykonos, famous for its gay scene. Amongst the hundreds of tourists of all ages and nationalities at the ferry port, a young fellow’s T-shirt taunts “I’ve gone to Mykonos, Bitch”.

It’s fun and games as usual on all the main Greek islands. The people, the food, the wine, the sunshine and beaches: the economic crisis doesn’t change them. Any strikes, protests or riots have been confined to a small area of Athens. It seems every Greek understands that frightening or inconveniencing tourists would be a bad move. Tourism is everything. Go now, they need you.

IMG_0464  IMG_0491  IMG_0011 santorini 3

Published NZ Herald August 11 2015 as Reviving Greek Ruins

 

 

Greece: Feeling the squeeze in the Corinth Canal

published in Escape, Sunday Star Times, August 9 2015

seadream in corinth canal

From a distance it’s a crack on the landscape. As we get closer, the Corinth Canal shows as a small opening in the coastline. From a few hundred metres off, it looks like an inlet with a ditch running inland.

It certainly doesn’t look as though a ship could pass through, and even as we enter the canal I have my doubts. As the eye is drawn along the length of the canal, it seems to narrow almost to nothing, although there is a small slit of light at the end.

A tug takes Seadream 1 in tow. We are one of the larger ships to transit the Corinth Canal, there are only a few metres clearance on either side, and we are not permitted to sail through under our own power. Smaller boats and yachts can make their own way, provided they have booked their passage and paid a fee. It’s a one-way system, for obvious reasons, and some waiting is involved.

The small cruise ship Seadream 1 is booked to pass through in the late afternoon. But we have to wait until night-time for yachts coming in the opposite direction to clear the canal, and a tug comes to pull us. By then, we pass through the canal whilst eating dinner at white-clothed tables on the deck. It’s an unusual experience, and strangely exciting. There is a feeling of being in a tunnel, but without a roof.  It might be claustrophobic but for the stars shining down and reflecting on the water.

dinner on the canal

The Corinth Canal connects the Adriatic Sea with the Aegean Sea, effectively cutting off the Peloponnese Peninsula at the bottom of Greece and turning it into an island. It is unusable for most modern ships and cruise liners, but for small cruise ships and private yachts it is a dream route for tourists sailing down the coast of Croatia then cutting through to the Greek islands (or vice versa).

Several cruise companies with ‘boutique’ ships make the transit of the Corinth Canal a feature of their itineraries. As we begin our crossing on Seadream 1, stewards pass around celebratory shots of raki, the strong local liquor, Greek music plays, and there is an attempt at Greek dancing from passengers. This is a five-star cruise which the Seadream company describes as “yachting not cruising”. In a mix of relaxed luxury, a multi-course multi-choice dinner is served on deck despite the fact we are half-way through this astonishing mini-canal.

The Corinth Canal was completed in 1893 but the idea for a crossing of the isthmus of Corinth goes back 2000 years. The ancients did not have the skills to build a canal but Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, is credited with building, in about 600BC, a stone road with wheeled platforms which pulled ships overland between the two seas. Traces of the diolkos, or stone road, are visible today.

Eventually the canal was built between 1882 and 1893 by Greek and French engineers. It is dug at sea level, so no locks are needed, but currents and tides, as well as landslides from the walls, make it problematic at times for sailors and ships’ captains. In World War II, New Zealand troops were deployed, unsuccessfully, to protect the Corinth Canal during the failed defence of Greece.

A bridge spanning the canal was destroyed during the attempt to stop German troops taking the canal. Rebuilt, it is today a perfect bungy jumping spot and a popular viewing platform for watching ships squeeze through.

The Corinth canal is about 6.4 kilometres long, 25 metres wide at the top and 21 metres wide at the seabed, and the sides are up to 80 metres high. Seadream 1 is 14 metres wide.

Panel:

Thanks to the Corinth Canal, the writer was able to combine two week-long itineraries. Seadream 1 departed from Venice, Italy, and sailed across the Adriatic to the Croatian coast, calling at Opatiji, Rab, Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia. After Kotor in Montenego, and Parga and Itea on the Greek mainland, the vessel took its 100 passengers and similar number of crew through the Corinth Canal to the Greek islands. Day-long stops were made at the islands of Hydra, Patmos, and Santorini, as well as at Kusadasi in Turkey. The passengers disembarked in Athens, Greece. The cost of each one-week itinerary on Seadream 1 and Seadream 2 (owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club) begin at about NZ$7000 per person.

SeaDream

Seadreaming along the Croatian Coast

Maiden with Seagull, Opatija, makes a handy perch for passing gull.

Maiden with Seagull, Opatija, makes a handy perch for passing gull.

 

Fish lunch at Dubrovnik.

Fish lunch at Dubrovnik.

Rab is famous for Rab Cake.

Rab is famous for Rab Cake.

The coast at Kotor, Montenegro.

The coast at Kotor, Montenegro.

Caesar and his guards entertain the masses at Split.

Caesar and his guards entertain the masses at Split.

No!

No!

Seadream 1 anchored off Parga, Greece.

Seadream 1 anchored off Parga, Greece.

Parga

Parga

 

Near the new town, Dubrovnik.

Near the new town, Dubrovnik.

Kotor, Montenegro, by night.

Kotor, Montenegro, by night.

 

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Hayden McFarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

 

At anchor at Rab is this clipper hosting a nude cruise. The crew wear clothes, the passengers don't, so we are told.

At anchor at Rab is this clipper hosting a nude cruise. The crew wear clothes, the passengers don’t, so we are told.

 

Top of the Yacht Bar, Seadream 1.

Top of the Yacht Bar, Seadream 1.

 

Opatija, a resort of an earlier era, now with an aura of slightly faded opulence.

Opatija, a resort of an earlier era, now with an aura of slightly faded opulence.

Venice, so lovely

Some say it’s the loveliest city in Europe and I have no argument with that. There are a few too many tourists, far too many pigeons, and I’m told the pickpockets are expert. But these are tiny scratches on the overall beauty of the place.

New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2015.

New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2015.

And it's a wonderful place to spend a birthday.

And it’s a wonderful place to spend a birthday.

It's difficult to get a personal photo at the Bridge of Sighs nowadays

It’s difficult to get a personal photo at the Bridge of Sighs nowadays

imageimageimageimage

 

Peacenik of the People

Published in Herald on Sunday, June 21, 2015

metropole exteriorIn a concrete bunker under Hanoi’s most prestigious hotel, the voice of American folk singer Joan Baez pierces the dank air. From a fuzzy tape recording comes her famous anti-war song, Where Are You Now, My Son which she wrote and partially recorded in this cramped and sweltering air-raid shelter. The music is punctuated by the crump of bombs hitting the ground above.

Joan Baez stayed at the Metropole hotel over Christmas in 1972, at the time the United States Air Force unleashed Operation Linebacker II, its most intensive bombing campaign since World War II. Along with a couple of other peace activists, including Telford Taylor who was counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials, and hotel staff, she spent every night of the 11-day bombardment crammed with up to 40 people in this small network of dark cells under the hotel’s back courtyard.

The entry stairwell was sealed after the war and the bunker forgotten for 37 years, to be unearthed two years ago during renovations to a terrace bar and pool. Now, small groups go into the bunkers to relive history.

bomb shelter 5 metropole bomb shelter 1 bomb shelter 2

As the temperature inside soared to 40 degrees, Baez would play guitar and sing to keep terror at bay. Where Are You Now, My Son refers to the cries of a woman Baez saw one morning searching for her son lost under rubble from the night’s raids.

The singer and human rights activist remains a heroine at the hotel, now called the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and considered one of the grandest hotels of Asia. Baez feels like a constant presence there, although she has made only two visits in her 73 years. The first was during the failed attempt to demoralise the North Vietnamese in 1972. The second visit was just last year, and like the Christmas Bombings, it lasted 11 days.

Baez went back into the newly-reopened bunkers during her visit. The hotel manager reports she touched a clammy concrete wall and quietly sang the American civil rights song Oh Freedom.

For the Metropole management and staff, the return of Joan Baez was a legend come to life. The history and mythology of their workplace is steeped in stories of how this American woman stood alongside them during the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to the conflict we call the Vietnam War.

Photographs and mementoes of her wartime visit are in a Path of History display in the lobby. A piece of shrapnel the singer picked from a bomb crater in 1972 and returned in 2013 is in a display case. She believed it was in the shape of a vulture. There is a Joan Baez cocktail at the bar, and in pride of place near the reception desk is an oil painting of a young Vietnamese boy, a novice monk. It was painted by Baez in the Somerset Maughan Suite of the Metropole during her recent stay. She told the manager her voice was not so good these days, so she’d taken up painting.

The Metropole itself, built and named in 1901, became the Reunification Hotel under the communist government and was used as a guest house for international visitors and diplomats. It became a private hotel again in the 1990s.

Now the bomb shelters can be explored only by guests staying at the hotel. It is difficult to open the bunkers to wider tourism because of their location under the bar and pool.

A local historian is damp-eyed as she explains the impact Joan Baez had – and still has – at the Metropole. During the American War, she explains, Joan Baez more than any other Westerner bravely stood alongside the North Vietnamese, speaking loudly in international protest and dodging bombs with the locals. Between air raids she visited American prisoners of war at Hoa Lo Prison (the infamous Hanoi Hilton) and delivered mail from home.

It is unlikely Baez met Senator John McCain, America’s most celebrated prisoner of war, who would probably have been applauding the Christmas Bombings from the Hanoi Hilton. But McCain is another return visitor to Hanoi, staying at the Metropole, and he is welcomed warmly and forgivingly, as seems to be the general attitude of many Vietnamese towards Americans.

Actor Jane Fonda – the infamous Hanoi Jane, seen as a traitor to her homeland during the war – also stayed at the Metropole in 1972, before the bombings, and she too has made return visits. Actor Michael Caine is a former guest, there for the filming of The Quiet American. Writer Graham Greene, like Somerset Maughan, has a suite named in his honour. He wrote parts of The Quiet American at the Metropole. And Catherine Deneuve stayed to film Indochine.

Vladimir Putin has been a Metropole guest, and so have Brad and Angelina, and Mick Jagger. But no one is so warmly welcomed or sadly farewelled as Joan Baez, and no-one else has the first painting they have ever put their name to hanging proudly in the lobby.

joan baez painting Joan Baez is touring New Zealand in October 2015

The original Blue Lagoon

the Blue Lagoon image  fiji-princess loungeTucked up in the bar of a little cruise boat in the Blue Lagoon area of Fiji’s Yasawa Islands, a few dozen passengers – and a handful of Fijian crew – are watching the movie Blue Lagoon.

It’s an odd experience to watch the young Brooke Shields discovering herself, and the boy actor whose name no-one can remember, whilst anchored in the location the movie was filmed.

A few hours ago it was us, the passengers aboard Fiji Princess, lolling in the crystal waters and frolicking on the white sands of the Blue Lagoon. (Well, perhaps not. The beach scenes in the 1980 movie were shot in several locations, not all of them in Fiji. But why ruin a good story?)Sea and rock formations, Sawa-i-Lau Island, Blue Lagoon

The previous day Fiji Princess had been moored at an island called Nanuya Lailai, also known as Blue Lagoon Island because this too was a location for parts of the movie. The beach here is possibly the perfect tropical island dream beach. Pristine sand and sea. Swaying palms. Tropical fish and coral an easy snorkel from shore. Deep water at all tides beckoning novice paddle-boarders and kayakers. And the whole scene enhanced by a crew member serving cocktails from a pop-up beach bar.

Our 55-metre catamaran theatrically ties up to a palm tree at Blue Lagoon Island, and we spend a day and a night in paradise. (Of course, the stern rope tied to the coconut palm is supported by a hefty man-made mooring holding the other end of the boat. But again, why ruin the story?) The beach is only a boat’s length away, so swimming ashore is an option.image

From the Captain down, the whole crew of Fiji Princess is Fijian. They are masters of multi-tasking. For example, Aggie the masseuse doubles as pastry chef. In between getting top marks from her clients for health-restoring massages, she turns out Fijian pancakes and tropical cupcakes for afternoon tea. And the man in grey overalls who spends his days in the engine room is the best vocalist aboard – in a nation where everyone is a good singer. He leads the entertainment in the evening.

The crew are always ready with witticisms to gee-up the passengers.

“The more you smile, the better the weather,” the boat-handlers assure us. And in the dining room it’s “The more you eat, the better you float”.

Floating in fresh water is rare in the Yasawas, but we do it at the Sawa-i-Lau caves, considered the heart of ‘blue lagoon territory’ in the northern Yasawas. Sawa-i-Lau Island is a limestone outcrop with steep hillocks and sheer bluffs, a novelty in the otherwise volcanic archipelago. Inside one rock outcrop are the caves, reached by steps up and stairways down. Within the caves are freshwater pools, lit by natural skylights. From the first little lake, it is possible to swim underwater, below a rock ledge, and surface in a second one.Sawa-i-Lau Caves

Sawa-i-Lau Island was the prime location for the original Blue Lagoon movie, starring Jean Simmons, filmed here in 1948. Its sculptural limestone rocks feature in both films. On some days, in different light, the Blue Lagoon might just as easily have been named the Green Lagoon, or the Turquoise Lagoon. In any hue, it is extraordinarily beautiful.

 

 

The Fiji Princess carries a maximum 68 passengers and is the only vessel operated by a company called, of course, Blue Lagoon Cruises. The history of Blue Lagoon Cruises is itself the stuff of movies. A young New Zealand stockbroker, Captain Trevor Withers, ‘went troppo’ here in the 1940s. He set up a fishing business which failed, then founded the cruise company in 1950, with a partner who went on to establish Fiji Airways. The only passengers Captain Withers attracted to his first sailings were Yasawa islanders getting a free ride home. The first person to buy a ticket was an American colonel, but he had to be returned to shore when he became stuck to wet paint on a newly spruced up toilet seat.

Blue Lagoon eventually prospered to the point of running three cruise boats at its peak. Today, new owners are hoping the refurbished Fiji Princess will attract enough business to allow a second sship, the retired Mystique Princess, to be brought back into service.

The beach at Nanuya Lailai and the caves at Sawa-i-Lau are two highlights of the cruise, but there are more, including swimming with manta rays, sunset over the Sacred Islands, and a visit to the school at Naviti Island.

 

*Blue Lagoon Cruises offers three, four and seven night trips, ranging in price from NZ$1,300 per person in a double room, to NZ$3,900 per person in a double room

*Meals and most activities are included, scuba diving and alcoholic drinks are extra

*Family cruises are available on selected dates, other sailings are adults-only. Whole-of-boat charters are suited to weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events.

* Tourists will find a donation to Vinaka Fiji added to their bills on the Fiji Princess (NZ$100 per cabin on a 7-night cruise). This is voluntary and can be reduced or removed. Vinaka Fiji is a charitable trust improving basic amenities in villages in the Yasawas. The islands were isolated until 2002 when the Fijian Flyer ferry service began, and the 27 villages on different islands remain impoverished. Lack of clean drinking water is a major issue, along with poor health, inadequate education, and no jobs. Vinaka Fiji also runs a volunteer programme where visitors pay to live in resort or backpacker accommodation and help in villages daily. www.vinakafiji.org.fj

*Unless you have unusually poor sea-legs, sea sickness shouldn’t be an issue. The captain often deviates from the itinerary to seek out sheltered anchorages, and sailings are never longer than four hours.

*Take Fijian cash for shopping at village markets. There are no banks or ATMs in the Yasawas

* Pack a smile, and perhaps your ukulele, you need little else.

Aboard Fiji Princess – Blue Lagoon Cruises

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The best way to experience the Yasawa Islands of Fiji?  The repeat travellers on Fiji Princess think so. Several are on their third or fourth trips. What’s not to like about tying up to a palm tree on a private island and spending the day snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking?