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.
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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: 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.

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.

The Seadream comes to an end

Seadream at sea It’s hard to wake up after such a good dream, but wake up I must. The two weeks on Seadream I sailing from Rome to Tenerife were about as good as life gets (in my experience anyway). “It’s yachting, not cruising” the promoters insist, and they talk about ‘the yacht’, never ‘the cruise ship’.  But of course Seadream I and Seadream II – owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club – are small cruise ships.  They are yachts in the way that the Royal yacht Britannia is a yacht, and they are not much bigger than the super-yachts in which the rich and famous motor their way around the world. The motto ‘yachting not cruising’ refers as much to the casual lifestyle aboard as to the size of the vessel, but they don’t have sails so it’s always going to be difficult for me to call them yachts. HOWEVER, I will use the word ‘yacht’ as instructed, because – HONEST TRAVEL ANNOUNCEMENT! – I sailed at a discounted rate.  To be frank, I could never have afforded the full fare, but at half price the cost was similar to the fares on the less expensive mainstream cruise ships.There are 112 passengers and 95 crew aboard, and it’s all five-star luxury. Wonderful food, amazing service, always someone passing by with canapes or cocktails. My manservant (who prefers to call himself The Handbag) found only one problem – a perfect example of a First World Problem – the rim of the spa pool was sloping and he was unable to balance his champagne flute upon it. Have a look at my earlier posts to see some of the stopovers we enjoyed. 27743-9Top Of The Yacht Bar Seadream traditionally sails the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, but this year has branched out to include an Asian itinerary which takes in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma.  Read all about it at www.seadream.com

Madeira : in a basket

On top of a very steep hill above Madeira’s capital city Fuchal (which means fennel, by the way), is the town of Monte. A modern cable car takes people to Monte, and will also take them down again should they wish. But the traditional way to descend from Monte to Fuchal is in a toboggan.

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Basically, we’re in a wicker basket with metal runners. Two strong men control speed and direction on the steep cobbled streets, using boots with car-tyre soles as brakes. It’s an exhilarating 2km ride, well worth the 30 euros, and afterwards one certainly deserves a Madeira m’dear.

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On Madeira’s terraced hillsides, everything seems to grow. Bananas, grapes, sugar cane, vegetables, flowering plants. It’s all on offer at Fuchal’s covered market, Mercado dos Lavradores.

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Sick at Sea

I have one word to say and it is GINGER. Ginger tablets, ginger tea, crystallised ginger, ginger ale. And as well as all that ginger, get a seasickness tablet from the concierge on the ship. They all carry them. Some folk are even going to the ship’s doctor for an anti-seasickness injection.
And when things look up a bit, add a dash of brandy to the ginger ale. I must be better because I’ve written more than one word.

Gibraltar : an oddity

Gibraltar is a little old-fashioned English seaside town, somehow separated from the motherland, floated across the sea and stuck onto the edge of Spain. Just a big rock really, but home to the world’s most patriotic British.

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Gibraltar is aflutter with Union Jacks, the streets packed with pubs, newsagents, turf accountants, Marks and Spencer and Topshop.

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Spain wants Gibraltar back, but the British have been here since 1704 and they are determined to hang on. The empire lives on.
Apart from the odd spectacle of watching people being enthusiastically British on a tiny speck of Spain, the other sight to behold are the Barbary apes, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They too are not native. They are thought to have arrived from Africa several centuries ago.

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Cartagena : victim of war

Four hours spent exploring the historic centre of Cartagena and its Roman amphitheatre is the same amount of time the inhabitants endured one of the most vicious air attacks of the Spanish Civil War. Republican Cartagena was the last city to surrender to Franco’s Nationalists. To finally ensure submission, and as punishment, Franco’s fascist allies, Germany and Italy, bombed the city to ruins. The Spanish Civil War is known as the first conflict to see large scale bombing of civilians. In Cartagena, hospitals, schools and churches were not spared. Today, central boulevards have been rejuvenated and an attractive waterfront welcomes passengers such as us from Seadream 1

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But behind the elegant facade of Cartagena are street after street of derelict buildings and wasteland.

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Government money from Madrid has helped open museums, including one based in old tunnels and caves used to shelter more than 5000 citizens from air attacks. This photo shows children emerging after a bombing raid.

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Cartagena is trying to become a modern city, but the past remains very much top of mind. The new sculptures which now grace the main pedestrian boulevard pay tribute to the thousands of Republican fighters from Cartagena who died. Many disappeared and their families still do not know what became of them. Mass war graves are still being discovered in the area between Cartagena and Malaga.

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Barcelona : cava heaven

This gigantic winery just outside the city is the biggest producer of sparkling wine in the world. They make 60 million bottles of cava each year, of which 45,000 are sold in New Zealand. A drop in the ocean, but we’re working on it.

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The informative Jep showed us the vineyard (350ha of Freixenet vines and they buy in grapes from 1000 growers).

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Then Jep poured eight different varieties of cava for tasting. There was an elegant silver spittoon which only Jep used. Waste not want not, I say.image