We definitely still owe the world another Sydney blog, as I’ve barely written a thing about the city we now live in, but we’ve also been on ANOTHER cruise and I didn’t want to deprive you of any more from details. Because CRUISE! Our favourite mode of transport. You know how we love to cruise.
So as you may recall from an earlier blog post, we were (easily) encouraged to book another holiday when on the last cruise from Hong Kong to the Pacific Islands, which meant that on 5th January 2017 we embarked the Voyager of the Seas to Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
We were sailing out of Sydney harbour, which was majorly iconic and also very convenient – we’d picked up the keys to our new flat the night before, so after leaving the car there were able to get an Uber to Circular Quay in just ten minutes!
The first few days were at sea, and pretty choppy. Our cabin was Deck 2 so very low down in the ship and the waves were about 2.5m swells that kept slamming into the side of the boat and the window. I didn’t feel seasick but I didn’t like how wobbly it was – we ended up spending the afternoon in our cabin on most of the second day as they had closed a lot of the decks off and it was raining, so there were very limited places to sit in the public areas! We spoke to some people who had balconies on the high decks (Deck 10 and above) who said that the spray from the ocean had reached their balconies! Not ideal sea day conditions.
Happily by Day 3 the weather was looking up, and by the time we stopped in Fiji on Day 4 it was hot and sunny again. Fiji was GORGEOUS. The Fijians were super friendly, and in Laukota, our first port of call, we went on one of the ship’s excursions – a boat trip to the desert island of Tivua. We were serenaded on the boat journey by local singers, and arrived 45 minutes later in paradise – white sands, small shaded huts by the ocean, a BBQ lunch and unlimited beers! After a complete failure to do paddle boarding (the wind! My lack of balance!) we decided that the best way to spend the afternoon was lazing on the beach under the shaded canopies. Just bliss!
Our second stop was in Suva, Fiji, which was a bit less picturesque in the port, but still proved to be an amazing day out. With Mitch and Catherine, our new cruise friends who happily had joined us at our dinner table (*hi* if you’re reading this guys) we were some of the first guests off the ship and into a taxi to Colo-I-Suva national park. We timed the visit brilliantly as we were the only people there to begin with, following trails through the forest to end up in natural swimming pools with waterfalls. It was very green and fresh and a completely different side to Fiji to Laukota.
After another sea day, on Thursday we docked in Port Vila, Vanuatu. The port was crazy – once we got off, we walked through a market of stalls and to the port exit which was overrun with taxi touts for water and land taxis and for tours. We were trying to get to Hideaway Island and had Vatu, the local currency, but kept being quoted in AUD. As it was just the two of us it was hard to negotiate but in the end we managed to join a water taxi boat that was dropping some people in town which agreed to then take us on to Hideaway Island. I almost certainly did not get the best price (not helped because I’d forgotten the exchange rate) and when Jimi and I realised that we essentially had a private boat driver that was confirmed. We paid 4000 vatu to get there, which turned out to be about $44, and then another 2500 vatu entrance to the island.
In Vanuatu, our boat driver explained that different resorts own different islands, so Hideaway is actually a resort you can stay at, though we were just day guests. On the way we drove past a lot of half sunk boats, which were victims of the cyclone and had just been abandoned around the harbour for nebulous ‘insurance purposes’.
The island itself seemed fairly large, with lots of the actual ‘resort’ areas off limits for us. Instead we found a spot along the stretch of beach where we had been dropped, and headed straight in to snorkel. The coral reef was running right along the beach and was pretty spectacular – although I’ve seen better coral, the sheer quantity and variety of the tropical fish was unmatched by maybe anything I’ve seen before (including the Great Barrier Reef!) Among the usual suspects in bright neons and electric blues and pinks we spotted our first actual clown fish hiding in some of the softer coral.
We spent a good hour exploring along the reef, before heading in for a break and to purchase some underwater postcards! These turned out to pretty much be regular postcards (!) which we were instructed to write on in pencil, and we then headed back into the water to the underwater post office. This was an underwater kiosk about 30m off shore, and maybe 4m deep, which I think is manned at times by someone in scuba gear. It was empty when we were there, so we instead posted the cards into the ‘postbox’ – fingers crossed they make it home?!
We stayed at Hideaway Island until about 2pm, doing some more snorkeling (best spot was a tiny seahorse on the coral!) before getting the free ferry back to the mainland. Here we had another altogether more successful go at bartering for a taxi to take us by road into town, and paid another 1000 vatu for us both. We got dropped after about 10 minutes at the duty free shops that Port Vila is particularly famous for, and decided to get some cheap ‘grog’. We picked up a couple of 1 litre bottles of Tanqueray gin for $18 each which felt quite cheap (preparing for you coming out in April) before negotiating AGAIN to get back to the actual port for a bargain price of just 500 Vatu for us both!
We had a quick look at some of the stalls at the port market (I was tempted by the Beats headphones on sale for $25) and got our passports stamped (a service I am not fully sure you are allowed to do, but hey ho!) before getting some much needed pizza and taking long showers. My hair had not been enjoying the constant on/off of snorkels and salt water…
The following day, we docked at Mystery Island in Vanuatu. It is a small island (you can probably walk around it in about 45 mins, but we just crossed it) where no one lives! The locals got boats to the island from the mainland (they live in a couple of villages there) and there is a toilet block, but aside from that it is just a cruise ship stop.
The boat tendered just offshore and Jimi and I had ordered room service so were up and ready to go before they started giving out tender tickets. We were on one of the first tenders (a lifeboat which the driver crashed into the ship as we left…) and it took a couple of minutes to dock on the island. We crossed straight over to the opposite side of the island and found a shady spot to lay out our towels before heading in to snorkel.
There was some coral right off the beach (but not a lot) and there were some fish to look at but not as good as at Hideaway Island the day before. After maybe 40 minutes, we went back to our stuff (which was now not in as private a spot as it had been!) and put t-shirts and shorts back on to have an explore. Walking back to where the tender had dropped us, there was a bar from the ship, where they were serving soft drinks and alcohol all day which was great as we had the drinks package. We were soon tempted by the colourful signs that had been propped up advertising tours the locals were running – at really low costs. We had some Vatu left so decided to give one a go, and booked on to the 10.30am Package 1 deal – a shark cave, snorkeling safari and turtle/eagle ray stop, all for just 2000 Vatu each. We had about twenty minutes to make up a small bag, with just our swimwear, snorkels and camera, before we met back up by the booking desk for the tour.
There were maybe 12 of us in total, and we were introduced to Mackenzie, who would be our guide, and another guy who was driving the boat. The boat was essentially a fiberglass shell with some benches and a speedboat engine on the back, that took us about 5 minutes away from the beach and out to the reef. Here the sea was completely clear, so we all snorkeled up and jumped in. The reef here was incredible – all different types, colours and sizes of coral, and all about a metre under the surface. Mackenzie led us all over to a big bit of reef of flat coral with a fissure running through it – it was standing alone, and if you’d swum down to the ocean bed about 3.5m below, there was a cave. This is where the reef sharks lived and one by one we took it in turns to dip our heads fully under and press our goggles up to the crack in the rock. With the light falling through, you could see the outline of two sharks lying in the cave just below – apparently they don’t come out in the day but still pretty terrifying if you stopped to think about it!
Once the whole group had had a turn, we all followed Mackenzie as he led us for about thirty minutes over some of the prettiest and most spectacular coral – we saw all kinds of fish, and gorgeous formations but alas, no turtles or rays! The trip was so good though and comparatively so much better than the reef you could swim to from the beach, so as soon as we got back to shore Jimi and I went right up to the desk to see if we could book another. We had only 2000 vatu left, but asked what that could buy us and the guy in charge said we could book on to the 1.30pm drop off zone tour. That gave us a couple of hours to sit in the shade, have a (contraband) banana and read, which was more than enough considering how crowded our area had become – there was an entire island and yet all the passengers seemed to be sitting where we were…
At 1.30pm we went back to meet our group and discovered it would just be Jimi and me! They asked if we wanted to borrow flippers but as we had no money we said we’d be okay (and we were fine, but only because we’re both strong swimmers!) On a map we were shown where we would be going – to the outer reef, about a ten minute boat ride out. We were with Mackenzie again, and along with the driver there was another local snorkeling with us so we were actually outnumbered. We couldn’t get over our luck having a private tour, but it ended up being so much better than we’d imagined! As soon as we jumped out the boat, right on the edge of the coral, with open ocean around us, we saw a turtle – quite deep and swimming away but a sighting nonetheless. After that the guys led us all around the reef for the next hour – we must have gone nearly a mile. It was unbelievably good – again all kinds of fish and pristine coral. It felt as though we were in another world to have it all to ourselves.
A scary moment came when Mackenzie pointed out a reef predator (we’re guessing barracuda, but it could have been shark?) which was swimming like us near the surface about 5m away. We didn’t see any more turtles or sharks than that, but did see all manner of other things including some massive snails. After the hour was up the guys asked if we wanted to keep going (uhmm, yes!) for another twenty minutes or so – I guess because we could keep up and weren’t really hindering them. The whole thing was just amazing and such good value considering the cost – we were so thrilled to have done it. After getting back on the boat (I was lifted on in both cases as it was too high/I have no upper body strength) we went back to shore, tired but just delighted by the whole thing. Probably the best snorkeling I’ve ever done. Just breathtaking.
We spent the rest of the afternoon just sitting in the shade and waiting for the tender queue to die down – the last one went at 4.30pm, and we probably got on one around 4.10pm. We’d had the complete full experience on the island, and it was definitely one of the best cruise stop days I’d ever had.
Which meant Saturday had a hard act to follow. We woke up early again (7am!) and after room service, got our bags together for a day on the Isle of Pines. Our cruise friends, Mitch and Catherine, met us at our room at 8am and we all went straight ashore on one of the first tenders (we have the tender system down to an art!) The tender took about ten minutes through aquamarine water to the beautiful shores of the Isle of Pines. It was aptly named, with huge forests of pine trees towering 50m high, interspersed around the beach with coconut trees. The sand was very fine and white – the whitest I’ve ever seen – and the combined effect was picture postcard perfect.
I’d read online that Oro Bay, on the opposite side of the island, was spectacular, so our first job when we got to shore was to find a taxi. Easier said than done – unlike the other ports there were just a couple of stalls set up along the wharf and no taxis in sight. We asked a guy touting for bus tours where we could find taxis, but he bluntly (French!) informed us there were ‘no taxis’ available at all and secondly that the bay was ‘not open’. Refusing to give up, we asked a stall owner to point us in the direction of the beach hotel. We stopped at their reception (maybe a 500m walk) and they gave us two taxi numbers, and suggested we wait on the main road as the taxis would be along in twenty minutes at 9am. Sceptical we walked back to the road, where there was barely any traffic (not so much a main road, as the only road) but at exactly 9.01am Jimi flagged down a guy who was running a tour to Oro Bay! Fate! We paid $20 each for a return trip, and set off the 19km journey across the island.
Because it’s French owned, we were driving on the right hand side, but barely saw any other cars (though the ones we did were French brands: Citroens and Renaults). Our driver was friendly and pointed out sights along the way including a church, the very colourful cemetery with painted crosses in a rainbow of colours, as well as the alleged tallest original pine tree on the island, from which Captain Cook had got the name. There were also lots of cows grazing along the roadside. After about 20 minutes we reached Oro Bay, and a small wooden hut where some young girls were selling entrance tickets for $10 each. We arranged to meet our driver back at this spot at 1pm (he’d wanted to give us only a couple of hours, but we’re so glad we had longer in the end!)
We paid the entrance fee, and were directed through the forest along a sandy path. A couple of very excited local dogs, presumably strays, ran along beside us and pretty much led the way to the edge of a creek. As it was high tide we had to get wet – so changed into water shoes and shorts, held our bags above our waists and waded across to the opposite bank. Picking our way over tree roots and partially submerged footpaths, we walked for around another twenty minutes, following signs to the Piscine Naturelle. We were lucky it was early because the place was practically empty – there was just one other group who were walking near us.
Eventually the creek opened out into the Piscine Naturelle – a large lagoon, sheltered from the sea by rocks and reef, so almost entirely still. Pine trees stood all along the banks framing the pool and you could hear the waves crashing on the rocks from the ocean behind the lagoon. We quickly found a shady spot to leave our things and grabbed our snorkelling gear and waded in. The water was warm and crystal clear, though towards the middle of the lagoon got a little colder and deeper. Here there was a small coral reef, and the most beautiful array of tropical fish all right in front of you. It was literally like swimming in an aquarium – I have never seen water so transparent and the visibility was incredible. There were clown fish and other small colourful tropical fish, as well as some larger ones on the sandy bottom. The coral was pretty too – not bleached or damaged. There was a hairy moment when Jimi and I swam over to investigate where the water was flowing in from the ocean and nearly got dragged out in an unexpectedly strong rip, but that aside the lack of current meant the water was still and even if you were standing up (which you regularly could) you could see the fish swimming all around you.
After about an hour we came out to dry off and reapply suncream, before having another go – this time armed with some breakfast pastries from the boat, which we crumbled up and fed to the fish (we’d read online about this, and saw another group feeding some bread). The fish went bananas and we got some great footage of us surrounded by all of them.
It quickly became clear that we had arrived at the ideal time, as the lagoon was getting increasingly busy, and the tide had started going out. Although we went back in the visibility wasn’t as good with lots of other people kicking up sand, and there wasn’t as much water to snorkel in! Jimi took some amazing photos though (we are going to have lots of new trip photos on the wall in the new flat!) and soon it was 12.30pm and time to walk back to where our driver was picking us up. This time as the creek was much lower we walked along that the whole way back and were surprised to find small reefs of coral all the way along – we were able to get some more really good photos just from standing knee-deep in water, with tropical fish around our ankles. We also spotted some suspicious looking creature (possibly an octopus?) masquerading as a rock, but kept our distance!
The driver was waiting for us back at the hut, and dropped us back on the beach, around the bay from the jetty where we’d be catching the tender back. The sand was just incredibly white and powdery, and the sea the most vivid shade of turquoise, so we couldn’t resist a quick dip before retreating into the shade. Even though I’d worn a cap today while snorkelling, we were all feeling more than a bit weather-beaten – the problem with being in the water for so long is that you’re right in the sun, and it’s hot! I’d been borrowing Jimi’s shorts and rashie for the past few days so was as covered up as possible, but the backs of my arms and legs were still pink!
After sitting and watching some crazy little see-through crabs dig some holes in the sand and then scurry out and fight each other before running back to safety again, we decided to head back to the wharf. We took a meandering stroll to the ship, stopping to get a fridge magnet on the way, and queued for a tender for about ten minutes before getting back on board at around 2.45pm.
Our final cruise stop (worth mentioning) was to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. We hadn’t really had any plans, but got off early anyway to catch the shuttle bus into town. There were heaps of tour operators offering a hop-on/hop-off bus, so we decided to take a chance – it was $20 but included a water taxi to Duck Island or Isle aux Canards. The island was very similar to Hideaway Island (in that it was a resort, with a beach and snorkelling immediately off the beach). Jimi spoke some amazing French and managed to blag us a double sun-lounger for the price of one! We headed in for the last snorkelling of the holiday and were pleasantly surprised by how good it was – the water was clear with some fantastic coral, and we even saw a turtle! Unfortunately there were also lots of tiny jellyfish in there so it came at the cost of lots of small stings (probably still worth it though!)
Which just left our final (actual) cruise stop – the Australian town of Wollongong which is a pointless stop at just 39 miles south of Sydney. Jimi and I did get off to have a little wander round the port and shops, and a dip in the (cold) pool before we headed back on board and set sail for our new home city of Sydney!