David George, an independent cruise blogger, relaxes into his first world circumnavigation on board Arcadia and finds that time races by.
Of all the questions asked when I returned home after my three months at sea, the most common was, “But how did you cope being away for so long?”
I must confess that I’d been asking myself pretty much the same thing ever since I’d booked the cruise. Naturally enough the idea of transiting the Panama Canal to sail south-westwards across the Pacific to visit places I thought I’d never see thrilled me, as did the prospect of missing out on a British winter and saving on the heating bills. But 92 days?
We slipped our lines in Southampton on a grey winter afternoon and returned in Spring to trees in blossom and flowers in bloom. What is more (oh, the joy of cruising as opposed to flying!), we gained a relaxing hour each time we crossed into another time zone, twenty-four in all. In between we were to enjoy all the facilities of Arcadia, resplendent after her £45 million refit, and a wonderful itinerary that included cities steeped in history as well as tiny islands and deserted beaches.
I’ll start with the ship. The Crows Nest remains my favourite lounge bar, its forward location giving fine sea views, but now with new seating in elegant pale blues and cream. Incidentally, if you want a quiet spot after breakfast, this is the place to be. If I wasn’t attending an art class or listening to a guest speaker, the Crows Nest was ideal for reading one of the ten books that I had brought with me, thankfully in e-book format because I could never have carried them all.
My cabin on E deck had obstructed views but by good luck I had chosen one situated between the lifeboats with the result that I could see quite a lot including, on one occasion, two engineers inspecting some cabling inches away on the other side of the window. A new flat-screen television on the wall at the end of my bed meant no more craning the neck to watch and I found the daily weather forecasts on the ship’s channel useful, even though they remained steady at ‘sunny and 28c’ for much of the time in the southern hemisphere. Good cabin stewards are worth their weight in gold and I had two. Moses and Ivo were excellent, not only keeping my room ship-shape but also happy to share insider tips on ports they knew well. Equally impressive was ever-cheerful Favian who punctually delivered my stock of lemon slices every afternoon. Being able to bring on board a bottle of spirits for a drink in the cabin is a valuable bonus with P&O and during this cruise we were also allowed from time to time to buy Duty Free on board for in-cabin consumption.
Once through the Panama Canal, the cruise gathered pace. Days at sea were packed with all sorts of activities. Each day there were guest speakers, my favourite being a former detective, DCI Terry Brown, who talked about interrogation skills and the importance of body language in establishing the truth. His presentations were full of humour although I left each one anxious about ever being hauled in for questioning! Shirley Anne Field came on board in Bali to share anecdotes about her film career and there were a number of other chat show-style interviews which proved equally popular, none more so than when Captain Hashmi Aseem was the special guest. The Captain could be seen around the ship most days and evenings so that we got to know him almost as well as we did our stewards. His willingness to chat was appreciated by everyone, with the result that the Palladium Theatre was packed.
Quizzes are popular and there were enough for even the most ardent enthusiast, the late-evening Syndicate Quiz attracting a loyal following as much as the early afternoon ones in the Rising Sun. There were port talks, bridge and art classes every day (morning and afternoon), cookery demonstrations by the Executive Chef, coffee mornings for solo passengers, quoits on the sun decks, table tennis and mid-afternoon piano and guitar recitals for those seeking a quieter pace and a temporary escape from the sunshine. In fact there was so much happening on sea days that carrying a copy of Horizon, the ship’s daily newssheet, became a necessity, simply to plan how best to use the time.
The stage shows were spectacular with the result that passengers needed to arrive in plenty of time to secure good seats. Service at dinner was therefore important and our two waiters, Rajkushor and Girish, never let us down. With Freedom Dining now available in Upper Meridian restaurant (and Club Dining in Lower) the organisation was faultless. We opted to eat at First Sitting in Lower Meridian and never felt rushed, leaving in good time for the shows. This was especially important on those nights when some of the Big Names appeared. Brian Conley and Pam Ayres were hugely popular, deservedly so, and there wasn’t a space in the Palladium by curtain-up.
Sailing through the southern Pacific we visited idyllic islands like Bora Bora and Fiji before arriving at Bay of Islands, our introduction to New Zealand. Despite a mist of drizzle which thankfully started to clear as the day went by, Bay of Islands – a tiny dot on the world map – was delightful.
These tranquil islands, all 144 of them, seemed to reflect the friendliness of the people and made them very special. We tendered ashore to a quiet beach and from there it was a 15-minute stroll to Paihia, although a shuttle bus was available if needed. Paihia is the largest town in these islands but seemed more like a village, and there was a real sense of pride amongst residents as we visited their pretty church, explored the few shops and walked along the promenade.
Our next port, Auckland, was in marked contrast. I have never been to the southern hemisphere and had been to led believe that townships would be small and sleepy. Not so, or not here at any rate. Arcadia parked with her bows virtually in the main street and when I went on deck before breakfast to enjoy the view, the modern cityscape compared with anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
But the towering skyscrapers hid a quieter side and amid the new-builds there were pockets of history to be enjoyed as well. Albert Park is worth visiting and entry is free. We gazed at statues that reflected the city’s historic links to the UK and admired beautifully tended lawns with beds of shrubs and flowers in all their summer glory. This is the great thing about world cruising. Without the horrors of jetlag, you wake refreshed to new continents and different cultures, ready for the surprises that only world travel can bring.
Reaching Sydney, we berthed overnight by the famous Bridge, across the water from the Opera House. It was a stunning setting and well worth getting up early for the sail-in. We couldn’t have had a more convenient base for seeing the city on foot and, in my case, for trying to secure a ticket for the opera.
Those ahead of me were lucky and enjoyed a magnificent performance of Carmen but sadly I arrived too late. Tip: if you want to watch an opera in Sydney, save queuing and book online a few months in advance, or take the optional excursion.
Our voyage took us along the south coast of Australia and one of the cities we visited felt almost British: Adelaide.
Here low-rise shops with verandas to protect shoppers from the sun gave way to more modern sights like the new Test cricket and sports stadium, but before that we joined a Family Fun Day in the park. Young families enjoyed themselves picnicking while at the slot machines teenagers were happy to pay a few cents to have their fortunes told. Hoop-la stalls and a modest Big Wheel provided alternative entertainment, and across the parched grass barbecues sizzled with burgers as drinks’ stalls sold old favourites like raspberryade. You see what I mean? England, forty years ago, and very enjoyable it was too.
Back on board we sailed further west to Perth before heading northwest for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. On sea days between ports, Arcadia resumed her busy timetable and I found time to catch up on a few films. These days P&O ships show the latest movies, including The Hobbit and Philomena, with the result that I wasn’t alone in wanting to see them. The Screening Room isn’t big and in the past the lack of seating has caused frustration. However, a new system for reserving places 24 hours in advance meant at least that we knew in good time if a film was oversubscribed and on occasions when demand was exceptionally high, the film would be reshown or transferred to a bigger venue like the Palladium.
Mumbai is a colourful and vibrant city with so much to see that only an optional excursion can hope to do justice to the highlights. However, my friends and I decided to explore independently and immediately after breakfast we headed through the port gates in search of a taxi. There were plenty to choose from but all thoughts of taxis went out of my mind when in front of me I spotted Favian, my room service waiter who had left the ship weeks before to go home on leave. The typically British reserve with which we greeted each other soon relaxed into what became almost a family reunion, Favian explaining that he had wanted so much to welcome us to his country. His patience in waiting for perhaps hours for the ship to berth summed up perfectly the kindness we met that day. Despite enormous poverty mixed with immense wealth, the people we met were all so friendly and open.
At Ghandi’s house, where entry is free, a guide went out of her way to answer my questions and was happy to take me to see the room where the great man lived. Later at the Central Railway Station a uniformed manager brushed aside the need to pay a few rupees to access the platform, ushering me through the crowded concourse like a VIP. This was fortunate because I had no local currency; in Mumbai, tourists use US dollars.
Less happy for me, but undoubtedly impressive, was Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This is a new city and its centre spreads out across several miles. A walking tour is something to be avoided, not least because the city centre roads are six-lane highways and not designed for pedestrians. We used the underground train system instead to access what we wanted to see and it was cheap and very easy to use. The trains are driverless and extremely clean. No wonder, because it is an offence to chew anything, whether food or gum. But a greater surprise for me was the courtesy of Dubai’s Arabs and European ex-pats.
On one train journey, a young businessman stood to offer me his seat, the first time such a thing has happened to me. It was kind but a bit depressing too, especially when he insisted despite my protestations.
Having seen the new Dubai we decided to spend time in the old souks and this meant a short ferry trip on board one of an armada of abras. For a ten minute crossing, the fare is very little – about 70p – but for me it proved to be rather more costly. I had my wallet taken from my pocket as we crossed and only realised when we were heading for the spice souk. Tip: whether in Dubai or in any city – including your own – do not carry wallets in side pockets!
My sightseeing came to an early end that day because of the need to report the theft and cancel my cards quickly. Full marks, then, to Arcadia’s Passenger Services’ assistants at Reception for their sympathy and speed in sorting things out. Without any fuss I was allowed free use of the telephone to contact my providers and within minutes, job done, I was able to recover in the Piano Bar with a generous gin and tonic. The team at Reception really is a great group of young people. They seem to deal with every issue so effortlessly and always with a smile.
Those of us doing the complete circumnavigation enjoyed a number of extra treats. Each of us received a handsome leather stationery portfolio in which I chronicled every port of call and, in addition, there were special lunches and cocktail parties to enjoy, great opportunities to exchange stories with fellow travellers as well as with the ship’s company.
By now we were heading into home territory, the Mediterranean. Our transit of the Suez Canal was fascinating. Arcadia was the first in the convoy of ships to sail northwards and the sight of sentries posted every 200 metres or so on either side underline the tensions that remain in the region. Alongside small fishing boats bobbed in our wake, the fishermen on board pausing to wave as we sailed by. The Suez Canal is about 160 kilometres in length and the transit took around six hours to complete at a cost of more than $400,000, a fare based on the number of passengers and crew on board.
Once we had passed Port Said we headed westwards via Valetta and Palma to Lisbon.
Portugal’s capital was hidden in early morning mist as we sailed up the Tagus River but it cleared and the weather soon turned warm and sunny. However not even the sunshine as we let go our lines that afternoon could disguise the sadness of knowing that the circumnavigation was coming to an end: this was our final sailaway. Next stop, Southampton.
As the weeks became months, the reality of the huge distances we had covered came home to me. 31,100 nautical miles in all, across five continents – and every one of those miles travelled in great comfort and style. So did 92 days feel like a feat of endurance? Not a bit of it. In fact, I would have been happy to carry on. The 2015 itinerary for Arcadia sounds perfect to me: it will be 14 days longer (106 nights in all) and visit more countries, including China, Vietnam and Thailand.
Back home to the reality of having to do my own food shopping again, I read that the banks are still offering paltry rates of interest. Is there really much point, then, in preserving every last penny of the family inheritance? Surely it would be better to help the economy and spend it. That’s my excuse anyway because I have now booked a cabin for Arcadia’s 2015 world cruise. You can’t have too much of a good thing and apart from anything else, surely the family will agree I need a second chance to spend more time in Dubai?
David George retired seven years ago. He worked in education as well as in broadcasting as a producer with BBC Radio. He now blogs about his cruise experiences and writes UK and European city guides.
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