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Melbourne, new zealand north island, sydney, transpacific & seattle

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MELBOURNE, NEW ZEALAND NORTH ISLAND, SYDNEY, TRANSPACIFIC & SEATTLE







Explorer of the Seas cruise is half way down this review



On March 27 we left for the Brunswick, Georgia Airport and our trip down under returning in part with a transpacific cruise to Seattle. We arrived in Melbourne on the morning of March 29 after four flights and over 35 hours of travel.

Delta would not allow us to check our luggage all the way to Sydney, since we had an 8 hour layover at LAX. At LAX, Ginny’s bag didn’t show up at the baggage turnstile. After filing a report with lost luggage, it was discovered that Delta checked Ginny’s bag to Sydney (they could see that was our ultimate destination on Delta). We had a separate flight on Virgin Australia from Sydney to Melbourne.

We had such a long wait for our flight to Sydney that I purchased a day pass for us at the Delta Sky Lounge at LAX. The lounge was not huge, but recently renovated and we found comfortable seats and enjoyed a few drinks and some pretty good food. Our long layover was due to my booking the one-way trip using miles. It was a great deal, 25,000 miles each for a one-way trip from Brunswick to Sydney.

MELBOURNE

Melbourne competes with Sydney for status as Australia’s number one city. Having visited Sydney in 2013, we found Melbourne as Sydney’s equal as far as touring. Sydney has its scenic harbor and opera house, but Melbourne was less expensive and had just as much to see.

Our hotel in Melbourne had a great location, in the inner city a couple of blocks east of the train station. We could walk much of the city center on our own. Melbourne has a great tram system, which within the city center is free of charge. The trams also go out to the suburbs and there are charges. We never took this tram, since distances were not far. The hotel was the small boutique, The Alto on Bourke, located at 636 Bourke Street. The accommodations were four star, the breakfast was excellent. A continental breakfast was $16 AU and full breakfast $19 AU. The people at the hotel were super. Everyone was very helpful and friendly. The hotel had a coin operated laundry room for use by guests that saved us quite a bit on laundry. Our cost for our six nights at the hotel averaged about $155 AU per night (about $120 US). The hotel had lower rates for Sunday and some days. Free latte or tea was available in the dining room as well.

Our first tour was with Gray Line (booked through Viator). This tour included a city tour, river cruise on the Yarra and dinner on an elegant Tramcar. All the events were a lot of fun and introduced us to the city. The Tramcar dinner was a nice touch. The meal was excellent with wine and great service.

The next day we took a tour with Bunyip Tours (booked through Viator). The tour (Healesville Sanctuary and Puffing Billy Steam Train ) was well run and we took another with Bunyip. This was a very good tour and we enjoyed it, but since we had other tours that visited the same area (Yarra Valley wine tour) and saw wildlife in the wild as well as in another zoo facility, it was not our favorite in Melbourne. If you go on the Yarra Valley Wine tour and the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island, skip this tour. The following day, we did a great Yarra Valley Wine and Winery Tour from Melbourne with the Australian Wine Tour Co. (booked through Viator). John was our guide and super. He took us to four wineries, some small others large. The wine was excellent and we all had fun.

Our final tour in Melbourne was a two day, one night tour, 2-Day Great Ocean Road, Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island Tour from Melbourne, with Bunyip Tours (booked on Viator). Ginny and I packed a small bag for one overnight and the Alto Hotel stored our large suitcases for our return. We selected this tour since we wanted to see both the Great Ocean Road and the Phillip Island Penguins. Both are offered on single day tours from Melbourne, but the travel time to each is quite a lot. Staying overnight in the area saved us much travel time. Still, it took us almost three hours to arrive at the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne. It was worth the ride. The so called 12 Apostles are magnificent huge rock formations carved out of the cliffs on the Southeast Australian coast by the ocean. The 12 Apostles were not the only great part of the first day of this tour. The coastal road, built by WWI veterans is magnificent from one end to the other. Also, our guide took us to a scenic town for lunch as well as stopping at key places to see kangaroos and koalas in the wild. We ended the day at a spacious and clean hotel with a BBQ meal (very basic but free).

The next day, we crossed a bay in a ferry to the Mornington Peninsula, visited a wildlife sanctuary, that a place where you could feed the kangaroos and wallabies. Also, they had a nice bird show. Then, we proceeded to Phillip Island, arriving there later in the afternoon to see some of the scenic coastal seashore and waters as well as some of the homes of the penguins. Before dark, we were taken to the site where the penguins come ashore. There are seating for 3,000 persons. We purchased a meal at the center prior to moving out to the stands. Our guide warned us not to talk while the penguins were coming ashore and especially not to take photos of the penguins. The penguins came ashore after sundown and taking a photo without a flash would be worthless anyway. Our guide explained that if we used a flash, it would certainly result in the death of the penguin, since it would affect their ability to see for a very long time and disorient them. Still, we saw one person during the penguin parade taking a photo. Made us very angry. Once the penguins came ashore (you could see the outline of groups of them in the distance) we left the stands and saw some of the penguins up close (special lighting-not bright) along some of their pathways. The penguins are only about a foot tall and they move slowly, since they are fat after feasting on fish for weeks. The penguin experience was great and the two day tour was the highlight of our visit to Melbourne.

CANCELLED NZ CRUISE, FOUND A NORTH ISLAND LAND TOUR

We returned to the Alto Hotel about 10:30pm from the two day tour. The hotel gave us a suite for our last two nights in Melbourne. That is when we walked by the coin operated laundry room and discovered it, so we did laundry. We had one free day left in Melbourne, but that morning, Ginny checked her email and we had one from Royal Caribbean that cancelled our Radiance of the Seas cruise to New Zealand. The message was sent out the day before and we received it two days before the cruise was to start in Sydney. We decided to try to find a land tour of New Zealand. Our hotel recommended the Flight Center Travel Agency a few blocks away. We walked down to the agency, met Emma, who did a great job finding a tour with AAT Kings (associated with Trafalgar). The tour started in Auckland, NZ on April 7 ending in Wellington on April 14. We booked a separate hotel (cheaper) in Wellington for an additional two days there, to return to Sydney on April 16. We had already booked our flight back to Sydney for April 5 and one night at the Four Seasons in Sydney. I called and added one more night there.

I originally booked the Four Seasons because it was located very close to the Circular Quay cruise port and the price was not so bad for a Four Seasons hotel. Price was $355 AU, over double what we paid for the Alto Hotel in Melbourne. However, Sydney is more expensive. The Four Seasons was what we expected a luxury hotel with great amenities, but we declined to eat breakfast there, were a full breakfast was $48 AU. Frankly, we liked the more friendly, more homey atmosphere at the Alto than the Four Seasons. We found a good breakfast right at Circular Quay for about $10 AU each. The extra day we had at Sydney, we took the Hop On Hop Off bus all over Sydney, which took quite a while, since we visited Bondi Beach. We had spent five days in Sydney in 2013 and seen much of the city, but the HoHo bus was a good option to see the city once more.

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is two time zones east of the Australian east coast. It is in the last time zone before you cross the International Date Line going east. It is only three time zones west of Hawaii. It is perhaps one of the more remote countries in the World. The country gets more rain than Australia and has a somewhat colder climate since it is a little more south than Australia. Our tour only included the North Island, since we did not have time for both islands (our Explorer of the Seas cruise departed on 22 April).

We were told that New Zealand was not inhabited by man until about a thousand years ago when the Maori people migrated there from Tahiti. They are a Polynesian people and we noticed some similarities to their native dances with the Hawaiian. Since the country was cut off from the rest of the World and the island had no mammals until a thousand years ago, when some were brought by the Maori and even more brought there by European settlers two hundred years ago. The unique birds like the Kiwi are now endangered due to the inability of the birds to fly and escape from these mammals.

According to wikipedia:

Prior to human settlement, the mammals of New Zealand consisted entirely of several species of bat, and several dozen marine mammal species (though the Miocene Saint Bathans Mammal shows that at some point there were terrestrial, "archaic" mammal species). The Māori brought the kurī (Polynesian dog) and kiore (Polynesian rat) in about 1250 CE, and Europeans from 1769 onwards brought the pig, mice, two additional species of rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets and possums and many other species, some of which cause conservation problems for indigenous species.

We were told that much of the native timber on the islands was cut and non-native trees, including a fast growing pine from California introduced. Still, there were areas of the island that we saw with native plants and trees. There are nature preserves in the country were the native plants and trees are protected.

AUCKLAND

Our AAT Kings tour of New Zealand started in Auckland, the largest city, located roughly in the middle of the North Island. It is a city of about 1.7 million of a country of 4.5 million people. It was an attractive city with a huge area of waterfront, both on the East and West coasts of the island. The city’s harbor areas were filled with hundreds of sail boats. Sailing is a huge sport in New Zealand, as the country has had success in the America’s Cup competition over the years. We didn’t have much time to see the city and were taken to our hotel, the Cordis Hotel Auckland, which was very nice. I would rate it a 4/5 star hotel. Our tour group meet for drinks prior to dinner where we had a briefing on our tour and the ability to get to know some of our traveling companions. Our group was mostly composed of Australians and Americans. We spend a lot of time with a couple from California, Klaus and Maile. They were great companions during the trip.

We had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant with excellent food. It was Da Vinci’s Restaurant. Service was slow, since many from our hotel decided to dine there as well. Still, the staff managed to serve us an excellent meal.

BAY OF ISLANDS

After a windshield tour of Auckland, we proceeded north to Bay of Islands, close to the northern end of the country. The drive through scenic Auckland with its many sailboats and scenic harbor changed to much farmland, greener than what we saw in the countryside around Melbourne. We saw lots of cattle, mostly dairy farms as well as sheep. New Zealand has something like 27 million sheep. When we had lamb in this country, it was great stuff. We arrived in the Bay of Islands at the Copthorne Resort Bay of Islands. We had a great view of the bay from our hotel room. Still, we had time that afternoon for our tour to the “Hole in the Rock.” The tour was about 3 plus hours on a boat large enough for our entire tour and more. We visited scenic landscapes with cliffs and rock formations. The Hole in the Rock was on a small island with a large hole in the rock. The hole was not large enough for our boat, perhaps a row boat could navigate through the hole. On the way back to the port, we stopped at remote type of camp that provided refreshments and cake. The next day we visited Russell Island, the home of the treaty between Europeans and the Maori that formed the nation. AAT Kings called it the Russell Mini Tour. Russell was very historical as well as scenic. Our tour took us up the hill to view the harbor as well as island. It was a nice day and complemented our Hole in the Wall boat tour the previous day.

While exploring Russell, we decided to have a light lunch. We found the Crusty Crab Takeaway half a block from the dock on Case Street. We ordered one order of fish and chips to share between us and received two large pieces of fish and a large french fry order that was excellent and more than enough for our appetite.

We had an excellent buffet meal at the hotel that night. The 7-night tour included four evening meals and all breakfasts. At lunch, while traveling, we always stopped at places were we could find affordable meals.

BACK TO AUCKLAND

We returned to Auckland and the same hotel were we stayed our first night on the tour. The trip back to Auckland covered much of the same route that we had seen on the way up to Bay of Islands, however, we stopped at Whangarei, a small city, known as the northern most city in NZ. Also, we stopped at Parry Kauri Park to see some giant Kauri trees. Our tour was top notch, but the one flaw was having to backtrack over the same ground. However, I am not sure how we could have started the tour in Bay of Islands, since, flying into that city from Australia was not an option.

The buffet meal we had at the hotel was fantastic. It featured many options, including steak, roast beef, shrimp, Italian food, Indian food, a great salad bar, soups and more. The next day, we checked out of the hotel again and set off for Rotorua. On the way, we saw a bit more of Auckland, which was a beautiful city. However, we didn’t spend much time touring there.

GLOW WORMS

Our first stop was at the Waitomo Caves. We toured the amazing limestone caves with lots of glow worms. To be honest, we were not expecting much from the glow worms. We were impressed with the tour, were, at the end of our cave experience, we entered boats and on an underground lake, with these bright glow worms on the roof of the caves. We were told that there were other sites in NZ with glow worms, but this one was the best. We enjoyed that tour. From Waitomo, we proceeded through some scenic terrain with snow capped mountains. We were told that the South Island was more scenic than the North. It must be amazing, since the North Island had no shortage of beautiful scenery.

ROTORUA

The tour took us past great views of the huge Lake Rotorua to our hotel. Rotorua is the site central to the native Polynesian Maori culture. That evening, we had a wonderful experience learning about that culture at the Tamaki Family Marae. We were broken up into groups and rotated through several stations were we saw Maori dances or learned about various aspects of the culture and history. We were told that about 15% of the NZ population is Maori. The evening was unusually chilly and many of us, even with coats, were chilled, but we felt sorry for the Maoris, who’s native clothing didn’t seem to provide much protection from the cold. Eventually, we moved inside for a complete dance show and authentic Maori Hangi meal, steamed underground. The meal was very good and the evening was a lot of fun, even with the chilly weather.

The next day, we had a choice of going to a Polynesian Spa, a WWII Duck tour on the lake or a visit to the side of Hobbiton, where some of the Lord of the Rings movie was filmed. We chose the Hobbiton option and enjoyed our visit there. It was explained that the original movie set (not permanent) was torn down, on the leased dairy farm. The owner of the farm had so many tourists coming to the farm to see the location of the filming of Hobbiton, that he contacted the movie producer, that agreed to rebuild the original set with permanent buildings, but identical to the original (on the surface). The tour was interesting and items like the very expensive fake tree were pointed out. We had a beer at the end of the tour in the tavern.

One more night in Rotorua, and we walked to the street in town with its many restaurants. We had lots to choose from and enjoyed a Mediterranean meal with Klaus and Maile. The restaurant was Cafe Ephesus and the food was good. Atmosphere it did not have and service was average.

The hotel were we stayed in Rotorua was nice, it looked a bit worn. We did like the enclosed courtyard with wonderful gardens of exotic plants. The restaurant was very good, but not as nice as our other hotels on this tour. The hotel was the Millennium Hotel Rotorua.

Our trip to Wellington at the South end of the island took us through more scenic terrain as well as farmland. We saw more of Lake Paupo and stopped at Huka Falls, which was a kind of falls with fast moving rapids rather than one with a huge drop. Still, it was scenic and we took several photos. Prior to arriving in Wellington, we stopped at the private home of Simon and Claudia for afternoon tea (actually a glass of wine). Simon showed us collection of memorabilia, some of it honoring the US Marine Corp that he said stopped the Japanese from taking over his country in WWII. He told us about the history of how the Marines came to New Zealand after the Guadalcanal campaign and were taken in by families (mostly Mothers that had their husbands and sons fighting in the war). He had a large collection of motorcycles that originated when the Marines left equipment like jeeps and motorcycles when they departed from NZ. For some reason the equipment was buried and New Zealanders dug them up and put them in good condition again. We saw a field that was the site of a battle in the 19th Century between Europeans and the Maoris. Sheep and cattle were grazing there. It was an interesting visit and we learned something about the Kiwi culture.

WELLINGTON

We found our hotel in downtown Wellington, the James Cook Hotel Wellington. It was another 4.5 star hotel with scenic views of the harbor. We had another group meal at the hotel, since this was the final night for several of us on the tour. Klaus and Maile were continuing on to finish the tour of the South Island. We had booked another, less expensive hotel 50 yards from this hotel (the Novotel) for two more days in Wellington. We were glad we stayed longer in Wellington, it was our favorite city on the tour.

We boarded the tour bus for a tour of Wellington prior to separating from the tour. Our tour took us to see the NZ Parliament buildings and the Beehive, home to its politicians. We visited Victoria’s Peak Lookout overlooking the city and surrounding bay, airport and seashore. It was not to be missed. Later, we visited the Te Papa Museum of New Zealand that was wonderful. We saw a special exhibit on the Gallipoli campaign in WWI, were so many Australian and New Zealand (ANZUS) soldiers lost their lives. The exhibit was very instructive and the larger than life figures were awesome. We also visited a portion of the museum on the Maori culture. The bus then dropped us off there, so we walked back to our hotel (we had checked out and had our luggage stored for pickup) and rolled our luggage 50 years down the sidewalk to the Novotel.

NOVOTEL

Our travel agent had booked our hotel for two more days, finding it very near our first hotel and less expensive. The price was great and we found the Novotel to be newer, with just as good or better breakfast. In fact, we saw no reason to pay almost double for the James Cook Hotel. The Novotel even gave us one free breakfast because the internet wifi was down a portion of our stay.

That evening we walked down to the waterfront (no far from the hotel) and found a great seafood restaurant, The Crab Shack. We dined there the next night since the food was so good. The calamari was the best we had ever eaten, anywhere. The crab and fish was also great.

The next day we took the cable car (near the hotel) up the hill to where there was a Cable Car Museum. It was a small, but interesting place with an antique cable car and told the story of the history of the cable car in the city. Since the museum was located just above the top of the Botanical Garden, we spent 2-3 hours walking down the hill exploring the gardens and its many exotic and beautiful plants. At the bottom of the hill there was a huge rose garden as well as a hot house with many amazing orchids and other flowering plants. We very much enjoyed the gardens, while not as good as the one we saw in Singapore, the Wellington Botanical Gardens were great. The gardens ended near the Beehive and Parliament buildings, which we had seen the day before. We took in the Wellington Museum, which was a bit disappointing after having visited Te Papa the day before. It was late in the afternoon, but we decided to walk to the National War Memorial. When we arrived soldiers were in formation drilling for a future ceremony. We were to late to do more than look at the few exhibits on the ground floor.

The next day was our trip back to Sydney. We had a ticket on Virgin Australia that was on an Air New Zealand flight. Prior to departure the attendant told us that the flight was “overweight” by 11 persons. Wellington’s airport had a short runway and could not take large aircraft, but it appeared to us that they just overbooked, since we saw no vacant seats after 11 people came forward and accepted a 400 NZ dollar flight voucher to be reassigned to tomorrow’s flight.

Our New Zealand experience was excellent. The tour and our two extra days in Wellington were clearly more intensive than what we would have seen from visiting Bay of Islands and Auckland on day trips from a cruise ship. Still, we missed the South Island. We probably won’t be making the long trip from the East coast of the USA to Australia or NZ again. Still, New Zealand is an interesting country with great scenery and friendly people. It only has about 4.5 million people, but they excel in what they really love. In Rugby, the Team Black’s NZ team is always giving larger countries competition in that game, frequently winning. Rugby is the game in NZ. Also, sailing is a passion in the country and they do very well in sailing competition like the America’s Cup.

Our New Zealand guide, Aaron Green (an excellent guide) gave us a lot of information on the economy of New Zealand and how it had changed over the past decades. Dairy farming has prevailed with the decline of the timber industry. Sheep farming still important there. From time to time he kept mentioning state industries. Apparently, New Zealand, after WWII had many of its key industries owned and operated by the government. However, in the 90s the government privatized some and closed others.

Field Marshall Rommel said that the New Zealand soldiers were the toughest that he faced in WWII. There is much to be admired about this country and its people.

BACK TO SYDNEY

Our TransPacific cruise from Sydney to Seattle departed from Sydney on April 22 and since our New Zealand experience was over, we returned to Sydney on April 16. Our hotel was The Tank Stream Hotel, 97 Pitt Street. The hotel was new and in an excellent location, just a few blocks from the Circular Quay, where the Opera House, the Rocks and the cruise terminal are located. The price was $265 AU instead of the $355 AU at the Four Seasons. The hotel had an excellent restaurant on the second floor (also used for breakfast). It was walking distance from a variety of good restaurants, museums and other attractions. We had spent five days in Sydney in 2013 and didn’t have much more to see on tours. We did take a wine tasting tour with Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours to the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. We had taken this tour five years ago and enjoyed it, so we were hoping to see different wineries. As it turned out, we did visit one winery that we had visited before, but did visit three others that we had not visited.

Unfortunately, Ginny was having allergy problems that increased after we took this tour. Fortunately, we still had three days until the cruise began. She stayed in the hotel for a couple of days to get better and her condition improved for joining the cruise. Still, for the first few days on the cruise, she was still having some problems. I had signed us both on a short walking tour of “The Rocks,” a historical area were the city was founded, just overlooking Circular Quay. Ginny didn’t feel like going on the tour, but I did and it visited more places that I had seen on a similar tour five years ago.

While in Sydney, we visited several museums. The best was The Australian Museum, with it very good mammoth exhibit. We had visited the same museum in 2013, when it had different exhibits. The Hide Park Barracks was very good, it was in the original building for entry of convicts into Australia. The building had a lot of history in its structure or displayed in the museum. It explained much of the lives of the people coming into early Sydney. After visiting Hide Park Barracks, we went across the street and visited the St. James Church, the oldest church in Australia.

Ginny and I also visited The Mint. It is a small museum where the mint was located. It is next door to the Hide Park Barracks. This museum was interesting, but not anywhere near as interesting as the other museums we visited. I also, visited the Museum of Sydney and the Justice and Peace Museum closer to Circular Quay. Both seemed to focus on the criminals in the early 20 Century. There was some repetition with visiting both these. I would pick the Museum of Sydney to visit and skip the other.

Ginny and I also walked through The Domain up to Mrs. Macquarie’s Point and then walked back through the Botanical Gardens, stopping to see the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The art was good and we spent a couple of hours there. We enjoyed the gardens (we always seem to enjoy such gardens).

I had found a laundry two blocks from our hotel on the internet (back in the USA) that had a coin operated laundry. I took my large suitcase filled with our dirty clothes to this laundry and it no longer had a coin operated laundry. The closest coin operated laundry was not walking distance, so I negotiated a $50 AU price for washing and folding all our laundry. The laundry was Elegant Dry Cleaning and Laundry on 8 Phillip Ln. They did a good job and it was worth the service.

Dining in Sydney during this time we had great meals at two notable restaurants. The first was Mr. Wong at 3 Bridge Land Sydney, It was about two blocks north of our hotel. Fortunately, we were there just before it opened, since a line had already formed outside. The restaurant was very popular and hard to get a table. The food was Cantonese Chinese and the food was exceptional. Dumplings were fantastic. The other restaurant, about a block south of our hotel was Jamie’s Italian on 107 Pitt Street. It was very busy as well, but we had another wonderful meal. I picked up some takeout at a Malaysian restaurant near our hotel one night and it was good. There were many eating places in the area, however, on Sunday night, finding a place to eat was not as easy, since nearly all were closed. I had to purchase a sandwich in a package at a convenience store.

EXPLORER OF THE SEAS, TRANSPACIFIC CRUISE SYDNEY TO SEATTLE

Our cruise was 23 days and a great option to having to make that 14 hour flight from Sydney to LA. The cruise was on Royal Caribbean (RCI), our first time on that cruise line. Celebrity is our first choice of cruise lines, but their prices have moved up in the past few years, since they started price bundling drink packages that we don’t want. RCI had better prices for a longer cruise, so we picked them. RCI owns Celebrity and we found more similarities that differences with the two cruise lines. We checked in just before lunch and shortly after lunch our cabin was ready, so we headed up to our cabin. The cabin was very similar to what we find on Celebrity for a balcony cabin. There was a lot of storage space in the cabin, which we liked. The bathroom was fine, although the shower stall was circular with slide out doors. It was compact in the shower, if you dropped the soap, you had to slide open the doors a bit to lean out to bend over to pick up the soap. There was a dispenser that we were told was a combination body wash/shampoo. However, we were furnished bar soap, which I used. Fortunately, I had brought my own shampoo. Our cabin steward was excellent, and we met him right away. His name was I Made. He brought Ginny a kettle so she could make tea during the day.

Our balcony cabin was amidships on port side, on the hump, which sticks out a bit from the ship and had slightly more of a view than a standard cabin. Explorer of the Seas is one of RCI’s older ships, about 19 years old. It had a promenade inside of the ship, between the forward and aft elevators that went from deck five up to deck 9 or 10. There were shops on the promenade as well as snack restaurants (we tried one once, it was not that memorable). There were cabins facing the promenade, inside cabins with a window to the promenade. Most had their curtains closed, so no-one could look into their cabins. Explorer had some nice design features, like the three story main dining room (MDR), a large pool area with a rock climbing wall and Flow Rider (for surfing). However, it had the antiquated enclosed balconies, which cut down on your view from the balcony. Also, the buffet on deck 11 was enclosed at the aft, with no sunset bar, like all Celebrity ships. We like the sunset bars, where we can sit outside right outside the buffet and have breakfast or lunch.

DINING

We had My Time Dining, which is no set time, similar to Celebrity Select dining. It worked fairly well during the cruise and we rarely had to wait for seats, since we usually sat with others at a table for eight. Some nights we dined with another couple and had a table for four. Service was excellent and only a couple of nights did it seem slow. The nights that we dined with our Celebrity Eclipse friends Joyce and Phil, from London, Jeffery was our waiter and he was the best. The food quality was about the same as Celebrity, except a couple of the desserts like the creme bruise and Tiramisu were not that good. The buffet on Explorer was not as good as on Celebrity ships. There was less variety and the salad bar was usually not that good. However, we were told that the MDR had a good salad bar for lunch. We don’t normally go to the MDR for lunch, to save time and we don’t want a heavy meal at lunch. The coffee at the buffet was not the excellent Lavanza coffee that we have on Celebrity. It was way too strong and even Ginny watered it down with milk (Ginny normally drinks her coffee with no milk).

We dined once in each specialty restaurant and were pleased. The Italian restaurant, Giovanni’s Table was excellent and for $30 we had way more food that we needed. The Japanese restaurant was al a carte and we had such there one day with Mary and Jim, our friends from the cruise Around the Horn in 2014. It was excellent, especially the dumplings. We enjoyed a Murder Mystery Dinner at the Chops Grill, the steak house and enjoyed both the meal and the show.

ENTERTAINMENT

Entertainment in the theater was excellent, although we did not enjoy one of the comedians very much. It was about on par with Celebrity or slightly better. However, there is an ice rink on the ship and we saw to wonderful ice shows that topped anything on Celebrity.

SPECIAL PROGRAMS

There was the usual bingo, trivia and stuff that we skipped, but we enjoyed very much the programs in the theater of Fred the Astronomy Guy. I met Fred prior to going to two of his show and we compared notes on cruise lines. He was an interesting guy. His programs were excellent. We particularly like the one he did on Meteors, Comets, Asteroids, ETC. He explained a lot about these celestial bodies and when some of these hit Earth or just miss.

DIAMOND

As regular Celebrity cruisers, we are elite and enjoy the free happy hour from 5-7. Royal’s Diamond rewards level (we transferred from Celebrity) is similar, but much better. Happy hour is from 4:30 to 8 and three drinks are embedded into your room key card, so you can order outside the Diamond Club. In the Diamond Club, you can drink until your heart’s content. We ordered a glass of wine a few times in the MDR (before 8). Because of this flexible policy, we did not buy a single alcoholic drink on the entire 23 day cruise. Also, because there were so many Diamond level passengers or above, the larger Star Lounge at deck 5 was opened up for us every evening. The smaller Diamond Club at deck 14 was still open during the day with a continental breakfast and great latte/cappuccino coffee. The Diamond Club had muesli and much of the time on sea days, I went to the fitness center and exercised while Ginny was still sleeping. After working out, I would go to the Diamond Club, have fruit and muesli as well as a lattes, then take Ginny some fruit, yogurt and latte to the room.

FITNESS CENTER

The fitness center was located on deck 11 next to the Spa and had plenty of stationary bikes that I like to use as well as steppers and treadmills. Also, it had the usually nautilus type of weight training equipment. Further, there always seemed to be a class of some kind going on in a separate room. Late in the cruise, I needed a haircut and found that I could get one in the Spa. It cost me $33 with my diamond discount.

ITINERARY 23 DAYS

Depart from SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

NOUMEA, NEW CALEDONIA

LIFOU, LOYALTY ISLAND, NEW CALEDONIA

MYSTERY ISLAND, VANUATU

SUVA, FIJI

LAUTOKA, FIJI

 

INTERNATIONAL DATELINE

HONOLULU, OAHU HAWAII

LAHAINA, MAUI, HAWAII

ARRIVE SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

The 23 day cruise included seven ports not counting Seattle, with a total of 8 port days out of 23, since we had two days in Oahu.

We enjoyed all the islands on the itinerary, but Hawaii was the highlight of the cruise. All had their own beauty, as tropical South Pacific Islands. Mystery Island, Vanuatu, an uninhabited island with wonderful coral was amazing. Perfect for our glass bottom boat tour or for those that snorkeled. The others started to remind us of our one Caribbean cruise, where after a while the island seemed to run together.

NOUMEA

This was our first stop out of Sydney. I thought that I had signed up for a private tour organized by another passenger, even called her the night before. We arrived at the meeting point and the tour company knew nothing about her or her tour. We managed to find another tour after about 45 minutes along with 6 other persons. The tour guide was excellent. The tour was about four hours long, cost $50 AU. We visited many scenic areas, outside the port city. Ouen Toro lookout was great seeing the South end of the island from up high. Also, we visited historical places as well. Since the tour was booked on the spot, I have no details of the exact places we visited. However, we enjoyed getting out of the port city and seeing the beautiful countryside. The HoHo bus and little train that ran from the tourist center didn’t go out of the city very much.

Noumea is on the largest island of New Caledonia, which is governed by France. New Caledonia includes other islands as well, including Lifou, Loyalty Island.

LIFOU, LOYALTY ISLAND was a smaller island, with a small population. We took a ship’s excursion that included a small botanical gardens emphasizing native plants and the vanilla industry. We drove up to a cliffside pavilion with scenic views of the lagoon where the ship was anchored. There were native huts for us to go inside and view. Also, refreshments were offered, included coconuts. The tour was good, but nothing to get excited about. This port qualified as our least interesting port on the cruise.

MYSTERY ISLAND, VANUATU

The next day our ship stopped at a small uninhabited island in a new country, Vanuatu. The island had a huge coral reef and it seemed coral nearly all the way from the beach (on the opposite side of the island from where our ship was anchored) to the reef. We don’t snorkel, so we took the Glass Bottom Boat Tour for $78 by RCI. The boat was excellent. We saw tons of coral as well as tropical fish, turtles and a couple of sharks. We noticed a hut on the island with a sign advertising this tour for $30 US, so you can see how much profit RCI made from the tour. I could not find any tours on this island on the internet prior to the cruise and I suspect that RCI fully booked all the tours with that firm. Still, we enjoyed the one hour tour on the boat. Some people were snorkeling or just enjoying the beach on the island, which had a lot of huts and makeshift shops. No one lives on the island, but the locals do come over for tourists when a ship is visiting.

SUVA, FIJI

Our next two ports were in Fiji and Suva, the capitol was the first port. We took a tour with Moana Tours (moanatours@yahoo.com) for four hours at a cost of $55 AU per person. The city of Suva did have some attractive sites, like the White House (with official guard) home of the President. However, our tour was primarily in the countryside. The most interesting part of the tour was at a pavilion with native huts nearby. We had a nice lunch with native food, local dances and the highlight being a group of fire walkers. The fire walk show was pretty good, with several of the men walking on the hot stones, heated by a large fire. Also, we visited a small waterfall down a trail past a native forest. The tour was very good and everyone seemed to enjoy the meal and shows. However, several of the elderly people using walking canes had a problem going down to the waterfall through the sometimes steep and rough trail. I think the tour company should have warned that this part of the tour was not appropriate for people with physical limitations.

LAUTOKA, FIJI

Our next port was on the same island, at the opposite end of the island. Jenny, from Australia, organized this tour and it was also with Moana Tours. It cost $55 AU per person as well. The tour included the wonderful Garden of the Sleeping Giant. The Sleeping Giant was a mountain, which the garden was below, in the jungle. The garden was filled with beautiful and exotic plants. It proved to be the highlight of the tour. We had a complementary drink after visiting the garden. We also visited a mud pool destination that included hot springs. Ginny and I declined the hot mud and relaxed. Some people in our group had massages. The last portion of the tour we visited a hotel on a beach resort, where we could buy lunch, enjoy the pool or beach for about an hour and a half. We had a nice lunch by the pool and enjoyed the beach scenery. That was Fiji. We thought the island was beautiful, but it did not overwhelm us. We were told that there are some very nice resorts on Fiji that are a bit away from the two ports that we visited.

Our next port was a week away, at Honolulu, Hawaii. We passed the International Date Line on May 1 and picked up another day, in fact, we enjoyed May 1 again.

HONOLULU, OAHU, HAWAII

The first day in Hawaii, we had to clear US immigration and customs, which was handled very well by our ship and the officials. Each deck had an allotted time to show your passport to the agents. There was a longer line for non-US citizens, but it seemed to move along fairly well. Our friends Mary and Jim, from North Carolina (we met them on the Around the Horn cruise) arranged for all our Hawaii plans. The first day in Oahu, after visiting a local pharmacy, we found a public bus to Pearl Harbor to see the Arizona Memorial. Mary had booked our time for the tour. As seniors, the bus cost us one dollar. That was great, because after the Arizona Memorial, we had a Luau some distance on the West shore of the island and the taxi that we shared cost us $70.

ARIZONA MEMORIAL

The Arizona Memorial is situated on a small dock overlooking the WWII battleship, which was sunk by the Japanese. It is the burial ground for about three hundred sailors and marines. Our visit to the dock was cancelled, due to the discovery of damage to the dock, making it unsafe. We still had the full tour, including a movie and a trip by boat near the dock and ship. We could see the USS Missouri not far away, where the Japanese surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay. Prior to going out on the boat, we spend about an hour and a half visiting the museums, one about the attack itself and the other the history up to the attack taking place. The museum were well done. After finishing our tour there, we found a taxi to take us to Paradise Cove for a Luau.

PARADISE COVE LUAU

The Luau was lots of fun. We were provided a tropical drink upon entry into the grounds, which included some beautiful gardens. We were issued a card with a credit that allowed us two more drinks each (we chose some beer). Prior to the show there were some activities on the beach, with hula girls and a fisherman showing how he netted fish. Also, there were some that chose throwing a native spear at a target. There were crafts and small shops as well. The setting was nice and we could see the setting sun that was beautiful. The meal had plenty of food for all. It included chicken and pork BBQ (reminded me of what we eat back home in Georgia) with veggies, slaw and dessert. After the meal, we had a lengthy show that continued on into the evening. The show was excellent with loads of Polynesian dances and songs. Toward the end of the show, some of the guests were invited up to dance and sing with the Hawaiian dancers and singers. It was great fun for all. After it was over, a bus took us back to the ship for $16 per person, which beat what a taxi would have cost.

TOUR OF OAHU

Our second day on Oahu was a full day drive tour up the middle of the island, around the North Shore and down the eastern shore of the island, back to Honolulu. The tour was with oahuspottours@gmail.com. Our guide was Ron Wong and he was an excellent guide. The tour was about seven hours and cost us $70 each. We had two problems on the tour, one was at our stop at the Dole Plantation on our way north and the second was that during part of our ride on the eastern shore, it rained.

We had nine persons on the tour. When we stopped at the Dole Plantation, it was primarily as a bathroom break. Ron announced that we needed to be back at the van in 20 minutes. Ginny and I walked around and didn’t see much that we wanted to do there. There was a maize and the Pineapple Express Train that both would take more time than we had to meet back at the van in 20 minutes. We did see some of our group just going through the gate to get on the train with a little over five minutes to go before that 20 minutes expired. The train ride was 20 minutes. Five persons in our group took that train. They were late coming back and Mary even went to the train entrance and saw more people going on the train. We heard the train whistle about every 20 minutes, until our five people were an hour late (yes, 20 minutes plus an hour). They finally showed up, only one apologizing. They said the train broke down, yet that did not appear at all to happen. Also, we noticed some of them carried bags indicating they had gone shopping in the shop. The four of us were outraged. It took away valuable time from the rest of the tour. After that event, the four of us didn’t have much to do with the other five and unfortunately, we had the same group with us on a tour the next day in Maui. In any event, I did not find any comments on the internet about a breakdown of the train, except an incident in 2016. Further, I checked the TripAdvisor reviews that said nothing about a breakdown.

Our drive took us to the North Shore, which is famous for its beauty and great surfing. We passed Waimea Bay, made famous in song by the Beach Boys. Ron stopped at several places for us to visit or take photos. We passed the area were many movies involving the jungle are made, like King Kong and Jurassic Park, but the rain was too heavy for us to see a lot. Fortunately, the rain cleared up and we were able to see some stunning scenic landscapes. On the way, we stopped at a shop to purchase macadamia nuts, which we ate in Seattle and they were great. Once we arrived near Honolulu, Ron took us to a high point where we took some great photos of the city, Diamond Head, Waikiki Beach and more (we could see our ship).

LAHAINA, MAUI, HAWAII

For Maui, through Mary, we were booked on a tour with infohana4less.com and Johnathan as our guide. The tour was $74 each and took us over the Road to Hana. The tour went up through tropical rainforests, waterfalls, tropical streams and pools and with some great scenic places. Unfortunately, we had rain during more than half the drive. Also, we four had the back of the van with the other five from the Dole Plantation in the front of the van. It was tense during much of the tour. Still, we saw more beautiful scenery. Although, I must say Maui and Hawaii were impressive, we were not overwhelmed with the scenery. Because we had earlier been to the Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island and New Zealand, that is why Hawaii was not overwhelming. Toward the end of the tour and we were probably about 20 minutes from the ship, the guide turned on the radio, which was not working that well, the music was loud in the rear and scratchy. I politely asked to turn it down. It was not turned down. The leader of our group of five grabbed the microphone from the guide and started yelling into it, frankly, causing us some pain to our hearing (Jim had a hearing aid and was seriously affected). I asked to stop it, I asked again, that person started laughing, I had to yell stop it, she kept it up some more and finally cut it off. We all thought this was payback for our being upset with the five being tardy the previous day. I have never been on a tour that went south like this one did. There is a lesson to be learned, be careful with whom you tour.

SEATTLE

Our cruise ended in Seattle and we were glad. It was a nice cruise, but at the end of a seven week trip, we were ready to go home. Still, we were on the mainland of the USA. We had two more nights in Seattle. Upon leaving the ship, we had booked a city tour with Seattle Express. The tour was about four hours and we left the port around 9 am. The tour itinerary was as follows:

Tour Itinerary:

Downtown Area: Get started in Seattle’s lively downtown area. Visit the first ever Starbucks, iconic Pike Place Market, Shopping District, and Seattle Art Museum.

Pioneer Square & Stadium District: Pioneer Square’s gothic-inspired early architecture transports you back to the early 19th century. Shuffle through modern galleries and popular restaurants as you make your way to the home of the Seahawks, Sounders, and Mariners.

International District & Waterfront: Tour the influential communities of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, Hmong, and Vietnamese residents. The International District offers a sense of both thriving diversity and unity. Continue toward the waterfront and see the city aquarium, fresh seafood restaurants, souvenir stores, water taxis, and so much more.

Seattle Center & Queen Anne Viewpoint: Visit the landmark Space Needle and its impressive surroundings, including the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project), Pacific Science Center, and Dale Chihuly’s Garden and Glass exhibition. There is plenty to see at this sprawling 72-acre urban park.

Ballard Locks & Fremont Neighborhood: The 99-year-old lock system is the gateway between freshwater Lake Washington and Union and the Puget Sound saltwater. This is a great place to relax and watch distant boats zip along the waterways.

The tour was great because it included storage of our luggage during the tour and drop off at our hotel near the airport. We drove through the city and the guide pointed out key landmarks like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and the fishing port. At the Ballard Locks, our guide took us to a nearby park where we saw several herons in their nests. We also were taken to some great spots for viewing the city and harbor. Around 2pm we made it to our hotel, near the airport, The Holiday Inn Express and Suites Sea Tac. The hotel was showing its age a bit, but renovations were going on. In fact, near our room there was a water leak that seeped a little into one corner of our room. We got extra towels to put down on the carpet. The hotel worked out just fine, it was half the price of a downtown hotel and we had an early flight out on Wednesday.

That night we found a very good restaurant about 3/4 mile from our hotel. It was Sharp’s Roaster and Ale House, 18427 International Blvd. There were many great choices on the menu and we very much enjoyed our meal.

The next day we had a Boeing Factory tour with Tours Northwest. Mostly that tour company arranged for transportation to and from the Boeing Factory, which was several miles north (on the other side of Seattle). The tour of the factory was very interesting. The factory building is the largest building in the World. Our group was processed at a different building, shown a film about Boeing and the factory, then taken by bus to the factory. We entered the building at two points, the first taking us to the older part of the factory where the original 747 was assembled (some 747s are still made for cargo) and other aircraft like that 767 are assembled. Then we were taken to that portion of the building were the 787 Dreamliner is assembled. The Dreamliner is made from carbon fiber, not aluminum like the earlier aircraft. It is way stronger, lighter and more energy efficient. The tour was very informative, describing how the aircraft are assembled. The manufacturing is done at other locations.

 

The next day, we flew back home and it took me a few minutes to remember my computer password. Our next trip will not be this long.

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Thank you for your review of your trip to Australia and New Zealand and your trans Pacific cruise back to the US. I enjoyed reading it, especially about my home city of Melbourne. I'm glad you enjoyed your visit here.I'm sure your review will be of great help to those intending to travel to this side of the world.

 

Leigh

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Great review. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of your travels.

 

 

Cheers

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