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April 30, 2015 Update – Group Cruise News

Welcome from the middle of the Pacific Ocean!  I’m currently aboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam on a 22-night trans-Pacific sailing from Sydney to Vancouver, of which we’re a bit more than halfway through at present.  Happily, we were able to depart Sydney on Sunday, April 12, as scheduled before the big storm hit and temporarily closed the harbor.  During the past week and a half, we’ve explored five exotic South Pacific ports, plus had half a dozen days at sea.  Before arriving in British Columbia on Sunday, May 10, we still have two visits scheduled in Hawaii, to Nawiliwili (Kauai) and Honolulu (Oahu), as well as eight days at sea, including today.  The weather has been most pleasant, and particularly nice on the islands we’ve visited, although understandably somewhat on the hot and humid side in these tropical climes.  We’ve encountered no rough water, and other than gentle rocking and an occasional mild lurch, crossing the world’s most expansive body of water has been no different so far than a typical week in the Caribbean, as has also been my experience on past trans-Atlantic trips.  On Sunday, we crossed the International Date Line, so we actually had two days identified as April 26, or as Yogi Berra put it, “Déjà vu all over again.”  Yesterday we also crossed the equator. 

I sincerely wish that I could interest more group organizers in offering longer “repositioning” cruises like this one to their travelers, since even though the groups are likely to be smaller in size than for a shorter voyage, such sailings almost invariably offer superior value (the best “per diem” bargain rates), the opportunity to visit some unique “out of the way” ports (American Samoa reportedly sees only about 14 cruise ships all year, a number you’d expect to encounter in St. Thomas in just one or two days), plus ample time for relaxation and really having time to enjoy the multitude of activities, entertainment, spa services and shopping  available aboard ship.  Needless to say, Oosterdam, which accommodates almost 2,000 guests, is filled primarily with retirees and other mature travelers in my age group, so the demand for an extended vacation is definitely there.  Although the U.S. is well represented on this sailing, most of my shipmates appear to be from New Zealand (where Oosterdam cruised for two weeks prior to this trip), Australia and Canada, with just a smattering of Europeans and Japanese.

Our first two ports were in the French islands of New Caledonia, the bustling capital city of Noumea, where I opted for a beach excursion (and noted local shoppers downtown clutching their fresh baguettes, just as if they were on the other side of the globe in Paris or Lyon), as well as the village of Easo on the unspoiled “rural” island of Lifou.  Here walks on the back roads led to great scenic views, incredible examples of South Pacific flora, as well as tiny local churches.  As with all of these ports, the native people were invariably welcoming and extremely friendly, plus never once have I seen a beggar or panhandler.  For those of you who receive Select Traveler magazine, later this year I will be writing a much more extensive article for that publication on the islands and people we visited on this cruise.

Next was Port Vila, Vanuatu, the island ravaged by Cyclone Pam in March.  I am happy to report that the citizens here have been hard at work restoring their hard-hit but still handsome island…indeed even though storm damage (especially to boats in the harbor) and piles of debris were still evident, almost all businesses appeared to be open and operating.  Oosterdam even played a part in relief efforts, collecting donations and supplies from guests and crew, as well as delivering eight pallets of essential goods on behalf of the Save the Pacific Foundation…medical supplies, clothing, bed linens, shelter tarps, tents, boots, tools and basic food items.  Also, through April, Oosterdam’s onboard “On Deck for a Cause” charity walks will go to Save the Children Australia, which is assisting Vanuatu in the recovery.

Our fourth port was the capital of the Fiji Islands, Suva, on Viti Levu.  Here I joined Oosterdam’s “Walk on the Wild Side” shore excursion, which featured a hike through the lush green rainforests, pools and waterfalls of Colo-I-Suva Forest Park, as well as a refreshment stop at a beautiful eco-resort nearby.  And on this past Monday, I had eagerly anticipated our stop at Pago Pago, American Samoa, since here I had made arrangements in advance to tour the magnificent National Park of American Samoa, a unit (my 392nd) of the U.S. National Park Service.  Those of you who know me personally are aware of my ongoing love affair with our national parks, and the splendid vistas, sheer cliffs and rainforests I experienced along the tour route most certainly did not disappoint.  Incidentally, those who might like to see some of the flowers, plants, and scenic panoramas I’ve photographed on this trip are invited to access my facebook page.  

Even though Oosterdam entered service in 2003, making her now 12 years old, such is certainly not evident physically, as she is surely among the best maintained vessels I have encountered to date.  Spacious and handsomely decorated in muted, very pleasing colors, none of the superior quality furnishings onboard appears to be worn, out of place, or in need of fresh paint.  The service and food have been uniformly excellent, although the promotion of optional “extras,” pretty much a fact of life these days on all except the most expensive “luxury” lines and many European river cruises, seems to be getting a bit more aggressive than I remember from Holland America in the past. 

Unfortunately, as can happen with anything mechanical, Oosterdam’s crew is currently having to deal with an air conditioning malfunction that is affecting some (but not all) public areas of the vessel, as well as a number of staterooms (including my otherwise exceptional Deck 7 Verandah accommodations…but surprisingly not the inside cabin right across the hall), making them uncomfortably warm.  Although the cruise staff has been most concerned, helpful, and very good at checking back with those affected (even moving some involved to other staterooms), I’ve come to the conclusion that the maintenance or engineering folks have more on their plate than they can comfortably handle at the moment, so repairs (or whatever) have been somewhat slow in coming.  I’ll let you know how this all works out in my next GCN update, as the important factor with such concerns is not really that they are problems, but ultimately how the situation is handled.

Just one final note…due to the cost and invariably slow speed of accessing the internet via satellite at sea, and the substantial amount of time that it takes to load and proofread GCN on The Group Travel Leader’s administrative site, I am not covering the breaking industry news this time around.  However, please be assured that I will definitely catch everyone up on hews from all the latest press releases, other than the last-minute, short-term promotional offers, soon after I return to the U.S. on Monday, May 11.