Our departure on the morning of day 5 in Sydney was bittersweet. Despite the heat-wave, no aircon, no window screens, blood-thirsty mosquitoes, a few other random unidentified insects, and a creature later identified by the landlord as a gecko that skittered through the apartment startling some and terrifying others, we enjoyed our stay in the Airbnb. The location, the kitchen, and the extra space were ideal. I think we all felt a little sad leaving Sydney, a city we agreed was delightful and offered many more experiences than we’d had time to enjoy. On the other hand, we were excited to begin our 19-day cruise with 5 additional ports in Australia plus stops in Indonesia and Singapore.
So we trudged up the hill past our favorite pub, the Lord Nelson Brewery, one last time with our bags in tow. As we made our way down Argyle Street, I looked around fondly, taking a few last photos to remind me of our adopted home neighborhood.
We arrived at Circular Quay too early to board the Norwegian Jewel, but joined the line which was already forming. Since our ship wouldn’t leave Sydney until 6 p.m., we had planned to go through the embarkation process, have lunch, then take in one last sight, the Australian National Maritime Museum, in nearby Darling Harbor.
When we discovered we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ship once we went through embarkation, we decided to cut the museum from our itinerary. We’ve all had nightmare experiences standing in line for hours to board the ship and right now we were at the front of the line so we decided to stay right there.
Happily, embarkation was one of the quickest we’ve experienced so we were soon on-board and made our way to the Garden Cafe for lunch. Although we couldn’t get into our staterooms for several hours, we contented ourselves with exploring the ship, purchasing our wine package, and perusing the Freestyle Daily which advises passengers of everything happening on-board.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Opera House from the Norwegian Jewel
View of CBD (Central Business District) from the ship
Our luggage arrived soon after the staterooms opened and we unpacked at a leisurely pace, grateful to think we wouldn’t need our suitcases for 19 days. The mandatory lifeboat drill was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. and sail-away at 6. As the four of us enjoyed a delicious dinner before the show, Aussie Boys in Motown, we watched from our table as Sydney receded on the horizon.
Come back next time to read about our first port-of-call at Newcastle.
Our visit to Australia in 2017 was cut short (you can read about it here) and I’ve been watching ever since for a repeat offer of that cruise itinerary. If you look at cruises of Australia, you’ll notice most itineraries include many ports in New Zealand and very few in Australia. Because Australia is such a large country and I wanted to see more than just one city, I always thought a cruise would be an efficient way to maximize our time and see more. Our 19-day cruise in 2017 began in Auckland, New Zealand with a stop in Bay of Islands before heading to Australia with stops in 6 cities along the eastern and northern coasts, followed by stops in Indonesia and Malaysia and ending in Singapore.
The itinerary now offered by Norwegian Cruise Line has changed somewhat. The cruise no longer begins in New Zealand which we visited during our 2017 cruise so that was fine with us. Malaysia is replaced by Semarang, Indonesia, on the itinerary which was a disappointment to me (and an even bigger disappointment when we saw Semarang but more on that in a future post.) This was the itinerary:
I booked the cruise on April 27, 2018, when the price was $6352.80 for an ocean view cabin for my husband and me. In 2017, we paid just under $5000 so the price seemed a little high but I knew if the price came down, I could rebook. I checked periodically and finally in August, the price went down to $5834.36. Then September 1, the price went down to $5134.36 and finally toward the end of September it hit $4187.20. Each time I rebooked at the new price keeping the same cabin and our original amenities which included free internet minutes and a $50 credit per person for a shore excursion at each port. If you haven’t done this before, you call the cruise line and say, “I see the price for my cruise has gone down. Can you help me rebook at the new price?” Simple but we saved a lot of $$$.
Fortunately, we saved on our cruise fare because I was sure an open jaw airfare to Sydney and back from Singapore would be expensive. I decided to check on a multi-city fare with a 3 day stop in Tokyo to visit our friend, Tomo. (More on Tomo later, too.) I could hardly believe my good fortune when I found this itinerary on Delta for the rock bottom price of $1246.43 each. Tip: When you see a good price, don’t hesitate; book it because it probably won’t be there long!
With cruise and airfare booked, it was time to work on accommodations in Sydney, Singapore, and Tokyo.
Sidenote: Many people have asked me whether I use a travel agent for my trips. I research and book everything myself. I enjoy the planning part of my travels nearly as much as the travel and I have a vested interest in finding the best deals.
My brother and his wife visited Sydney in 2018 so I asked them whether they would recommend their Airbnb accommodations. They heartily endorsed the three-bedroom condo located in Miller’s Point in the heart of “The Rocks” but cautioned us there wasn’t aircon. They were there in April in the middle of a heatwave but we thought a heatwave in February was unlikely and the location just couldn’t be beaten. It was pricey but we were traveling with friends and hoped a third couple would join us to share the cost. In the end, it was just the two couples but we were all glad we stayed there in spite of temperatures in the 90s, no screens on the windows with resulting mosquito bites, and a cost of $442 per night.
Jim, Rick, and Lori outside our Airbnb in Sydney
Next, I looked at hotels in Singapore. In 2017 I reserved a room at the Holiday Inn Express but had to cancel it when our trip ended at Sydney. I couldn’t find a better price including breakfast in a better location so, against my better judgment, I booked it again. I usually avoid staying at American chains when traveling abroad, preferring to experience local culture and accommodations instead. This hotel was gorgeous and you’ll see more of it in future posts.
Interior of Holiday Inn Express, Singapore
Finally, I researched Tokyo lodging. Tomo was staying with us in the US at the time so I had his guidance in selecting a hotel. In spite of that, when he looked at the hotel I booked he said the hotel I selected was in the area where Japanese mafia or yakuza could be found. Sure enough, I read reviews indicating the red light district was nearby! He directed me to another area where we enjoyed the Mitsui Garden Hotel immensely.
Mitsui Garden Hotel in Tokyo
In between searches for lodging, Lori and I looked at cruise excursions and quickly decided several were not to be missed–snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, a visit to Komodo Island to see the dragons, and the opportunity to hold a koala. We also scheduled a tour to the Blue Mountains from Sydney. We decided we would schedule any other tours or excursions as we went.
Last but not least, I attacked the challenge of packing for a month in a carry-on suitcase. Fortunately, we had laundry facilities at our condo in Sydney and our platinum status with NCL provided us with laundry service onboard but careful selection was important, nevertheless. When I mentioned my packing issues to Lori, she said, “You did a packing post before this cruise two years ago. Why don’t you just look at that?” You can see that post here. When I looked at it, I discovered I had selected almost the same clothes this time around! But this time, I decided a month-long journey required more than 3 ounces of shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, and sunscreen so I decided to buy those items in Sydney.
We were ready. But of course, any time you plan to travel in Iowa in February, you have weather issues and this trip was no exception. Two days before our departure, we received an email warning us of impending weather issues that could affect our flights. I spent some time researching options and in the end, we decided to travel to Des Moines a day early and let the chips fall where they may. After a nightmarish drive through ice and snow to Des Moines, our flights the following day were unaffected.
I know this post is long overdue. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time writing about this trip because it was so traumatic. My husband counseled me to skip it and just move on but I felt a need to finish writing about it for closure. If you just wandered into my blog, my mother died early into this cruise and you can read about it here. Anyway, here’s my feeble attempt to wrap things up.
We’ve always enjoyed days at sea while on a cruise. In fact, Jim has been keen to book a repositioning cruise because they include more days at sea than in port but we haven’t found one yet that fits our schedule. We departed from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand at the end of day-2 of our 19-day cruise to sail 1300 mi (2100 km) across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. We would spend three nights and two full days at sea before our arrival in Sydney, where we left the cruise early to fly home.
The first evening we went to dinner at Cagney’s, one of the specialty restaurants which charge extra. We wouldn’t normally pay extra for a restaurant but we’ve attained platinum status on Norwegian which provides some perqs like waiving the cover charge at specialty restaurants. The food was very good but I’m not enough of a foodie to tell you whether it would be worth the extra cost. The young couple seated at the next table, Derek and Emma from Australia, were delightful company, too.
While I may not have the most discriminating palate, I definitely knew our experience another evening at Moderno Churrascaria was a cut above. This specialty restaurant, modeled after a traditional Brazilian steakhouse, showcases meat. Diners are given a card with a red side and a green side. If your card is green side up, the waiter will continue to bring more meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, until you change it to red. Incidentally, the buffet of cheeses, salads, and vegetables was equally impressive.
Cheese and vegetable buffet
My selection from the buffet
The star of the show
Green side up
It’s always fun to meet people when traveling and this trip was no exception. One evening we had dinner with the two couples we met while working through the visa debacle which occurred when we boarded the ship. I love the fact that we’ve since connected on Facebook and can keep up with one another’s travels.
Jim and me with Dale, Michelle, Debbie, and Jerry
And in case you haven’t yet figured out that food plays a central role in any cruise, you can even watch the food as it’s prepared on deck. I especially enjoyed watching the preparation of this seafood dish for lunch poolside.
I tried to walk off some of the abundant food each morning on the promenade deck and encountered many others doing the same. Admittedly, we didn’t use the fitness center this time but on most cruises we do.
Lots of activities keep cruisers busy during a day at sea. Fitness and dance classes attract many of the women and cooking demonstrations are popular, too. Or relaxation is also an option, whether reading or simply sunning on the deck.
Jim reading on deck
If you forgot to bring a book, you can find one in the library. And if sunshine and warmth on deck don’t suit you, you can find a seat in the library, too.
I’m not a much of a swimmer but the hot tub beckons to me every time. Soothing away all that stress, the hot tub is almost as good as therapy.
The Norwegian Star is an attractive ship and it’s a pleasure to explore the public areas. While I didn’t take as many photos on this trip, here are a couple of the atrium to give you an idea.
And since this post is titled “Cruising the Tasman Sea,” a photo of the sea is required.
We arrived in Sydney, Australia early on day-5 of our cruise. We were packed and ready to disembark so we watched our arrival on deck beginning at dawn. The views were outstanding.
Sydney Harbour at dawn
Sydney, Australia at dawn
Sydney Opera House with a cruise ship behind
Sydney Opera House
Our last view of the Sydney Opera House as we disembarked from the Norwegian Star
Although this trip ended in tragedy, we are travelers at heart. We will return to Australia and one day visit the other ports we missed on this itinerary. Life is short; travel like you mean it.
I first saw the itinerary for this cruise online while I was in Mexico in January 2016. It was everything I ever dreamed of in a trip to Australia and New Zealand including 5 ports all along the eastern and northern coast of Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. That alone would have sold me but in addition, this itinerary included Bali and Komodo Island in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Singapore, places that hadn’t been on my list previously but immediately attracted me.
Scheduled to set sail from Auckland, New Zealand the following year on February 18, 2017, it looked like the perfect winter getaway from Iowa and the website showed the starting price for the 19-day cruise was only $2009 per person. I was so excited I called Norwegian Cruise Line right then to book it. This was my dream trip.
The price for the two of us including taxes and fees for an ocean-view cabin was just under $5000 which I thought was a bargain. When you book a cruise over a year in advance on NCL, you pay a deposit and pay the balance three months before the sail date. Until you pay the full cost, you can cancel the trip with no penalty. Our final payment was due in mid-November of 2016.
Normally, when I book a trip I’m so excited I start planning immediately but this time, it seemed like events conspired to keep me from doing much advance planning. I booked in January 2016 and had other trips already scheduled for March, April, May, August, and October. I thought I’d do more research following those trips but then in September, I spotted an affordable Viking River Cruise for the end of October which distracted me again.
I did call the cruise line in September just to confirm my price and found an even better deal which saved me a couple hundred dollars and included pre-paid gratuities, a substantial savings of $12.50 per person per day.
Anyway, when I called in mid-November to make my final payment, I had only done a little advance planning so I got busy and booked our flights to Auckland and back from Singapore for $1755 each. We would depart from Minneapolis on February 13 and arrive on February 15 allowing us 3 days to see Auckland and environs before our cruise departure. Our return flight on March 11 allowed an extra day to tour Singapore. I also reserved pre and post-trip hotels in Auckland and Singapore. And most importantly, I reserved the excursion to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.
Over the following 4-6 weeks, I researched our ports in earnest to determine which excursions we should book and which we could do better on our own, starting with Auckland, New Zealand. In January, I ran across an article on the internet about the mechanical problems experienced by our ship, the Norwegian Star, in December while cruising an itinerary in Asia. The problems resulted in an altered itinerary and angry passengers who gathered in the atrium to protest the captain’s refusal to meet with them. I called NCL, not because I thought they could tell me anything, but more to register my concern. They assured me the ship was fixed and our cruise would not be affected. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.
Meanwhile, we spent two weeks in Mexico in January and returned to learn my mother had been ill with the flu while we were gone. When I talked to her, she warned me not to come over to avoid getting sick before our next trip. I continued to check in with her and she didn’t seem to be improving but I knew her husband was taking good care of her. Finally, after a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. I went over to see her and was deeply concerned by how ill she was. She assured me the antibiotics would put her on the road to recovery soon.
During this time, we received a revised itinerary from the cruise line because the ship continued to have problems. I was disappointed to learn the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia; and Bali were canceled but fortunately, Arlie, Australia, the port for the Great Barrier Reef was still included.
The day before our scheduled departure we went to Des Moines to visit our two sons and daughter-in-law and returned that night to learn my mother was in the hospital. The following morning, I raced to the hospital to see her. She was sitting up in the chair and looked much better but she was still wracked with coughing spells during our visit. We left for the airport, however, feeling comforted she was in the hospital where she would receive good care. My brother, Paul, promised to check on her daily by phone and keep me informed by email.
I called my mother from our first stop at LAX before our 2-day flight to Auckland. She told me they had withdrawn fluid from her lungs, she felt 100% better, and she expected to go home the next day. I was enormously relieved.
Our flight was uneventful. We departed from Minneapolis on February 13 with stops in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia and arrived in Aukland, New Zealand on February 15. We crossed the international date line losing an entire day which happened to be Valentine’s Day. (How memorable is that?)
The morning of February 16 (the 15th at home), I woke up to an email from my son, Brian, telling me to Face Time my brother. Paul told me the fluid from my mother’s lungs had been tested and indicated stage 4 lung cancer. They assured us, however, she had about 6-9 months and they would devise a treatment plan. Meanwhile, we would Face Time with my mother every day while we were gone. With this bad news on my mind constantly, we continued with our plans to see New Zealand before our cruise. (More on what we saw in future posts.)
We arrived at the cruise port to board the ship on February 18 (17th at home) where we experienced near disaster. When we finally reached the front of the line to check in, we were asked for our visas for Australia. VISAS???? We didn’t know we needed a visa to get into Australia! We had just stopped in Sydney on our way to New Zealand and didn’t need a visa. How had I missed this requirement? The cruise line accepted no responsibility to inform passengers in advance and I had missed it. Well, we moved to another line with several hundred new friends to apply online for an Australian visa. We were toward the front of the line but it wasn’t moving at all due to a variety of factors including but not limited to a slow internet connection, too few computers, and operator inexperience (aka elderly cruisers with few computer skills). At one point, two new friends, Michelle and Debbie, and I left the cruise terminal in search of internet access, found it, but still couldn’t get the program to work and approve our visas. So back to the line we went where we stood in line for hours. We finally did get the requisite visa and checked in.
While all this went on, my stress level increased due to a text from Brian.
While I was worried, I wasn’t totally panicked… yet. When we finally boarded the ship we went straightaway to the internet people on board to get my account set up. (I had 250 minutes to use during the cruise to check in by Face Time with my mother.) As we set sail, Brian told us that my mother’s cancer was even worse than initially thought.
The next morning we arrived in Bay of Islands (which had been restored to our cruise itinerary) and had an email telling us they were discontinuing all treatment and my mother had just 7-10 days to live. I was in total shock. By happenstance, we arrived at a historic church just as the service was beginning. After crying copiously throughout the service, I knew I needed to talk to my mother and find out her wishes. If she wanted me to come home, that’s what we would do. When I talked to her, she said, “Come home.”
That was easier said than done when you’re on a ship on the Tasman Sea three days from port. I checked flights from Sydney to Minneapolis and found they would cost around $1200 each. We went to customer-service on the ship, explained our situation, and told them we would disembark in Sydney. I asked about calling Delta Airlines and, as they put the call through, I told Jim I forgot my credit card in our cabin. As he ran to get the card, I explained my situation to Rakennya with Delta in Atlanta. She was able to credit our flight from Singapore and book a flight from Sydney for an additional $224 each. Jim returned to the service desk to tell us the key card wouldn’t work in our cabin door. They rekeyed it and off he went again down one floor and about a block down the hall. I tearfully explained the problem to Rakennya and she soothed me by saying, “It’s ok, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. I’m not hanging up.” Jim came back again, still not able to open the door. This time they told him housekeeping would meet him there. When housekeeping finally arrived and couldn’t get in either, they had to call security. The problem turned out to be a dead battery in the door. (Who knew they had batteries?) When Jim finally returned with the credit card, I’d been on the phone with Rakennya for over 45 minutes. That woman was a saint.
We had three nights on board before we would reach Sydney and get our flight home. We Face Timed with my mother when we got up each morning which was noon of the previous day at home. All my family was with her, both her children and grandchildren, none of whom live in the same town but they all managed to get there in time to say their goodbyes. We talked to them, too, and they would ask, “How’s the trip?” and we would respond everything was beautiful but we just wanted to get home. During that time we also met several people on the ship who were lovely and understanding. I was, frankly, a mess and my dream trip had become a nightmare.
We thought we still had plenty of time to get home and say our goodbyes in person until an email from our son, Michael, told us on February 21 (the 20th at home) she was comfortable but no longer awake. When we called, he told us it was time to let her go. She died at home later that day, surrounded by her loving family. It was just one week after we left home and two days before we returned.
Today, over five months later, I can still hardly believe it. I often think, “Oh, I need to call my mother about…” Then I realize she’s gone. I miss hearing her soft southern drawl and the way she said my name. I even miss how she would say the most outrageous things and then look at my husband and say, “Isn’t that right, Jim?” I miss her every single day.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America, sailing the Hawaiian Islands year-round since its maiden voyage in 2005, has a capacity of 2186 passengers. Compared to the new mega-ships that accommodate 6000-6800 passengers, that may sound small to you but it was just right for me.
I watched the ship arrive at sunrise from my lanai at the Marriott.
Our shuttle transportation from the hotel to the cruise port was included in our cruise package so the transfer was easy and efficient. I wish I could say the same for the check-in process at the cruise port but it was one of the slower experiences I’ve had with Norwegian Cruise Line even though we were in the priority line. I share this with you, not to complain, but rather to prepare you in case you have the same experience. And if you don’t, you can feel lucky.
The last stop after checking in was a photo. In fact, they take a lot of photos on cruise ships hoping to sell them to the passengers. Our cruise package included 20 free photos so we kept them whether or not they were flattering. I’ll share some of the better ones in blog posts.
Welcome Aboard photo
We booked an inside cabin, knowing the ship’s movement from port to port would be at night and a window would be wasted but the money saved would not. I wake up with the sun, so no window can be a problem. I left the television turned on and tuned to the bow cam with the sound turned off. As the sun came up, the screen lit up the room. It helped. While our cabin was not exceptional, the champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, and chocolate bar awaiting us were welcome treats.
Our welcome aboard gift
Toasting our good fortune
As we explored the ship, we soon discovered the theme was patriotic with more traditional furnishings which were a definite hit with me. Notably, there was no casino on the ship, a first in my cruise experience. Gambling isn’t legal in Hawaii and the ship never leaves Hawaiian waters so there’s no gambling on board. Not a problem for us.
Hawaiian performers in the Capitol Atrium
Guest Services desk
Picture of the Pride of America in a stairwell
Outside the Aloha Cafe before sail away
We belong to the NCL rewards program called Latitudes. In fact, we’ve achieved platinum status so the perks were pretty good. In addition to the champagne, chocolates, and strawberries in our stateroom upon our arrival, we were invited to a wine and cheese event with the captain. The best perk, however, was free laundry service which came in handy when I spilled wine all over Jim’s good pants. And I do mean all over. The laundry cleaned them and had them back to us the following day in time for dinner. I’m grateful the wine came out or I’d never hear the end of it!
We also each received a gift certificate for two with a bottle of wine in a specialty dining venue, Jefferson’s Bistro, which otherwise costs extra. We took our friends. Lori and Rick, with us one evening later in the week and had an outstanding dining experience.
Painting of Monticello in the Jefferson Bistro
Dinner at Jefferson’s Bistro
The menu at Jefferson’s Bistro
Our first-course selections
Le Quatre Cornets
Escargots Bourguignonne (snails)
Asperges Grillêes (Asparagus with hollandaise)
Moules Poulette au Pernod (mussels, pernod, cream)
Main course selections
Filet de Saumon d’Atlantic
Filet de Boeuf Grille (filet of beef)
Coq au Vin (Chicken in Burgundy)
Here are several more photos around the Pride of America.
Main Dining Room
Sunset from the aft of the Pride of America
Our first port, Maui, is the subject of next week’s post. Come back and tour the Road to Hana with me.
I’ve been looking at Hawaiian cruises for years. In 2003 we travelled to Oahu with our children for spring break and I’ve wanted to return ever since but I wanted to visit more islands than just Oahu. Hawaii is expensive and island hopping takes the price up quickly. I was looking at Hawaiian cruises in 2014 when I found a trip to a safari lodge in South Africa for less money so we went to South Africa instead. When a South African safari costs less than a Hawaiian cruise, you know it’s expensive. Read about it in my first blog posts in February 2014.
So, when my friend Lori and I happened to see a 7 night Norwegian cruise of the Hawaiian Islands on the internet for a mere $1299 per guest, we jumped on it. By the time fees and port charges were added, the total was $1445 each but that’s still way cheaper than I’ve ever seen. And get this!!! The price included 2 additional nights at the Marriot Waikiki before the cruise and transportation to the cruise port. Incredible!
Norwegian is the only cruise line that stays overnight in ports in Hawaii. They spend a week just cruising the islands rather than sailing from the mainland to Hawaii like other cruise lines. Then the other cruise lines spend just part of each day in a port of call and sail to the next port overnight. NCL’s itinerary especially appealed to us so we could explore each island a bit more than the typical cruise allows.
This was our itinerary:
Always one to arrive well ahead of schedule to allow for unforseen delays, I wanted to arrive a day early for our stay in Honolulu. The rates at the Marriot were over $300 per night so I checked the Outrigger Wakiki where we stayed in 2005. As luck would have it, I found a rate for a partial ocean view for $212 so I booked it. We would have to change hotels after the first night but that wasn’t a deal breaker for us. The Marriot is just down the street so we’d walk our luggage over in the morning.
Finallly, we booked airfare at $777, not bad considering the distance from Iowa to Hawaii. Our flight arrived at 6:30 pm and after a taxi ride to the Outrigger Waikiki and a quick and efficient check-in, we settled into our room with this view.
Partial ocean view from the Outrigger Waikiki
This hotel was as welcoming and luxurious as I remembered. The rooms are beautifully decorated and they even provide a welcome insulated gift bag filled with goodies.
Our room at the Outrigger Waikiki
Bathroom at the Outrigger Waikiki
We were soon off in search of food. My pre-trip restaurant research revealed that some of the best food in Waikiki was actually to be found at Duke’s, the restaurant on-site at our hotel. That was easy.
Mai Tai at Duke’s
Our friends Lori and Rick at Duke’s
Duke’s patio seating
Jim and Laura relaxing at Duke’s
Palms at night on Waikiki
Drinks and food were both expensive, but that’s expected in Hawaii. After a day of travel with no meals served on our flights, our meal hit the spot.
I was thrilled to be back in Oahu. I’ll never forget our first visit and I loved it as much or more the second time around. Check back next week for more coverage of Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and so much more.