A personal account of the 19th/20th ‘Music At Sea’ cruises onboard Celebrity ‘Mercury’ February 17 – March 16 2008.
When I last wrote about
‘Music At Sea’, our cruise commenced in Dover, a few hours from
my home! For these ‘Music At Seas’ I headed for Australia, literally
the other side of the world, and although it was a certainty I wouldn’t
arrive in Sydney bursting with energy – I don’t even arrive at
my local supermarket in that condition – I hoped to get there in reasonable
shape, which arriving in Sydney after twenty-two hours in the plane and an
eleven hour time difference, I thought I had done. Wrong! I was through immigration
and customs in Sydney by 7 in the morning so feeling fine and knowing it was
too early to check in to the hotel, I opted for a short walk around the city.
It was only after I had left my credit card in one shop, told another surprised
sales assistant how glad I was to be in Canada, and given idiotic smiles to
many surprised passers by, that I realised I was actually spaced-out with
tiredness and should get to the hotel immediately. At the entrance the doorman
(who had enquired my name on arrival earlier that morning) greeted me by name
when I returned! Impressive - but later I realised that, amongst the well
heeled business-suited men with their leather briefcases, I was the alone
in sporting a polyester track suit, trainers, and trundling a wheelie case
that had seen better days!
(Mercury docked in Sydney harbour. Photo by Paulina P’ng)
I like Australia. True, they have a nasty habit of squirting
disinfectant on arriving travelers, but the officials are welcoming and –
plus plus - there are no death duties! ‘Mercury’ was moored in the
harbour close to the Opera House – itself shining in the sun - looked
every inch a regal Grande Dame of the Sea and after a speedy embarkation, the
MAS group were re-united over Dinner. In the restaurant John and Rose had reserved
us a special area on the upper level, overlooking the Captain’s table
below and adjacent to a cinema screen-sized picture window giving views to the
rear. Perfect – and, as is usual at the start of a cruise, there was a
palpable frisson of excitement, well justified for we were commencing a unique
voyage, brand new itineraries for ‘Mercury’, and, for most of us,
that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to visit places the less fortunate
only dream of.
The next evening, after a spendid day ashore (some even climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and buying the ‘T’ shirt to prove it!) ’Mercury’ slipped her moorings and glided from the harbour. Our cruise was now truly underway and the following sea-day was magical. Our inaugural MAS concert was preceded by a private reception and followed by a glittering Formal night. There are some who claim that ‘Formal’ in Australia means a freshly ironed ‘T’ shirt’! Slanderous! The elegant attire of the many Australians onboard made the evening come alive with sparkle, style and dignity. Fitting therefore that the next morning we should wake up in a living piece of Australian history. The ancient gold rush town of Melbourne. Much to see and experience despite a sky leaden with rain clouds threatening to soak us. This was an omen for the cruise, for on this journey from Australia to New Zealand stormy weather was to be the norm rather than the exception. Unfortunate, but not a disaster – nobody had purchased this particular voyage for the sunshine and, unless one is in the Caribbean, weather is not the prime ingredient of a cruise. The modern cruise ship has many varied onboard activities. We had Celebrity’s enrichment programme, our own exclusive private concert series, visiting amongst ourselves, importantly, the bonus of quality time. Time to do those things we never seem to be able to fit in during our ‘real world’ lives. Perhaps reading that book which has stood unopened on the shelf for the last six months, or visiting a far-off place dreamed of for years, or simply paying more attention to someone you really love – even if it is only yourself!
Every morning many of us met in the Cova café and most evenings I had the pleasure of joining different tables for Dinner. For me these occasions are special, not only for the food and wine – although magnificent – but for the company and good fellowship. That’s what makes them special. I have NEVER had a boring evening with the MAS group. Our tables are first in, last out and often noisy! Sorry! Indeed this sometimes leads to enquiries from those outside the group as to why, at our tables, we always seem to be having such a good time!
So what do we talk about? Everyone and everything. Nothing
is taboo - the day’s events, childhood and work memories, but mainly personal
experiences. Of the many stories told some featured animals! Dave, described
how, on a boating trip passing a cave, he looked inside and noticed a terrified
goat cut off by the rising water. It would have drowned. Yes, Dave did the noble
thing, dived off the boat, swam into the cave, captured the frightened animal
and balancing it across his shoulders, swam back to the boat! Brilliant! Then
Gordon and Pauline, described how, on a walk near their Welsh home one Christmas
Day, they noticed a distressed sheep, trapped on its side by the brambles, unable
to move. They ran home and phoned the local farmer who responded that in that
condition the sheep had no value so he would let it die! Not the right answer
for Gordon and Pauline! With gardening sheers in hand they returned to the brambles
and cut the sheep free. Now there was a problem. Every time they helped the
poor sheep to its feet it fell over. Gordon and Pauline don’t give up
so easily. Back home again they went - to return with a wheelbarrow into which
the groggy animal was carefully placed and then trundled back to their garage
where it was made comfortable and provided with Christmas lunch. Gordon and
Pauline didn’t specify what a sheep eats for Christmas lunch but the menu
certainly did the trick as by the end of the day the bleating quadruped was
galloping around the garage, demanding to be taken home! So, that evening, Gordon
and Pauline put him carefully in the wheelbarrow, took him back to his field
and reunited him with his relatives. Happy Ending – but it gets better,
because from that day to this, neither Gordon nor Pauline has eaten lamb!
Meanwhile, the 77,713 tons of indulgence named ‘Mercury’ was continuing its voyage to Hobart, where many of us fulfilled ambitions to stroke a Koala (and where, coincidentally, the local newpaper is also called ‘Mercury’) and then to one of the highlights - the Fjords of New Zealand’s South Island. These were carved out of the mountains by massive glaciers some 20,000 years ago and have no counterpart anywhere in the world. We navigated three of the most spectacular – Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound. First Milford Sound, where an early morning mist suddenly thinned, burst into glorious sunshine and then, just as abruptly, became torrential rain! After we left the shelter of the inland waterways, the sea became an angry, boiling mass, gigantic rollers smashing against the ship’s hull as though a giant was hurling rocks. How treacherous these seas must have been for early adventurers. ‘Mercury’ rode the waves triumphantly but my concert that afternoon was to become one of the most testing of my professional life. The theatre was bouncing up and down and walking from the side of the stage to reach the piano was hazardous, but, in showbusiness there are two intangibles which make the impossible possible. Adrenalin and Audience. Some will say there is no such thing as a bad audience – just a bad artiste! Be that as it may, there is definitely a Good Audience - and this audience was phenomonal. They must have been feeling pretty ropey themselves but they supported me as though it was their team winning the Superbowl! It was my turn to applaud them - so I did. Afterwards I was paid a much appreciated compliment: “Gee Brooks, your’e the best balancing act since Flipper!” Humour is never far away on a ‘Music At Sea’ cruise and I suspect a few might have utilised the traditional ship cure for sea sickness (rub the top of your head with alcohol - from the inside) as two normally lucid people came up to me later that evening and asked; “Do you ever worry about developing carnal tunnel syndrome” and the other – referring to some of the introductions with which I preface the music; “I do enjoy your antidotes’!
Mercury was making good progress. We stopped in Dunedin boasting the steepest street in the world (gradient:1 in 2.9) and the next day arrived in Christchurch. A city slumbering in sleepy heat, secure in the bosom of the surrounding rolling hills. If trees are the custodians of the earth, Christchurch has no worries for they were there in profusion. On the hillsides, gardens and even the highway central reservation. And at the docks their amputated relatives, logs, stacked in neat piles seemingly stretching to infinity. A truck with pincers was carefully sorting and lifting them with the care one would give to avoid bruising a fragile fruit. From the dock area the bus took us past gardens of flowers with well manicured lawns into the town centre where there was a cozy, welcoming ‘vibe’. Beside the cathedral a craft fair was in full swing and a small bus marked ‘Penguin Express’ chugged past. Outside a local bakers was the inscription “All we knead is love”. Everything seemed so clean – the cars newly scrubbed and when did you last see an articulated lorry with gleaming chrome wheels? Only in Christchurch! And this is my opportunity to mention a personal experience indicative of the courtesy of New Zealand officials. I had gone ashore with an official ship’s pass and a photocopy of my passport – in most countries more than enough - forgetting that in New Zealand the requirement is for an ORIGINAL identification document with photo. Of course, back at the dock gates this was noticed, courteously explained and, although he needed to escort me back to the ship, the officer went out of his way not to cause embarrassement. Thank you New Zealand.
I’d like to share a thought with you. At the docks I noticed a sign which stated “In emergency dial 111”. Isn’t it time we nations got together and agreed on one universal international emergency telephone number? The current system of different ones for different countries is idiotic. 911 in the U.S.A., 999 in the U.K., 112 in much of Europe,
1691095 in Sri Lanka (before you’ve finished dialling that you could be dead – thus reducing pressure on the emergency services!) and onboard the ship 8888!! What do you think?
On we went to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city and then Tauranga, our final port which, so we were told, enjoys a warm dry climate. You must be joking! Not on this occasion! The heavens opened and the rain bucketed down. Umbrellas groaned in the wind, useless against the horizontal torrent. Those brave souls who ventured ashore for one final scoop of New Zealand’s legendary icecream ‘Hokey Cokey’ returned drenched, several pounds heavier - but triumphantly happy!
That evening we said ‘Farewells’ to some – including John and Rosemary – who were leaving the following morning. For the last two weeks John and Rosemary had babied us, taking care of every eventuality – if we could have bribed them to stay we would, but they have a major travel agency to run, a home to maintain, and two furry purries - Tidbit and Shadow - demanding love and cuddles! Corky and Judy, two of our Founder Members, took over the administration with quiet efficiency. Although neither had organised a group before, I had the feeling they had been training for this moment all their lives! They did a tremendous job. Thank you!
In Auckland some of us went sky walking and the next day in Tauranga, now blessed with sunshine, jet skiing! Holy Moly – did they have a suicide wish? I had contented myself in Auckland with a brief walk around the dock area (I was amused to read a notice at the gate stating ‘You are entering an alcohol free zone’ - somehow this didn’t equate with the numerous ‘Happy Hour Special’ signs displayed in the many dockside bars and restaurants!) and in Tauranga a totally safe and informative morning chatting to Art, a professional photographer and one of our ‘regulars’. He had just returned from a National Geographic trip to Antartica with some gripping pictures. One was of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s grave where it’s a tradition that all visitors have a slug of whisky - and then pour the rest of the bottle over Ernest’s grave! The old boy should be well marinated by now! It reminded me of a joke concerning a woman who instructed that, after she passed away, a bottle of finest single malt be poured over her remains. The punch line comes from the bereaved husband standing mournfully by her grave with bottle in hand pleading “Darling, would you mind if I passed it through my kidneys first?”
Amongst the new passengers (but not in our group) was a couple with an interesting story. They had married in Hawaii the previous November (The gentleman was 70 and the lady 71) and boarded Mercury late last year for a honeymoon cruise from Hawaii to New Zealand. In Bora Bora she went swimming and was stung by a jelly fish. One of the crew members saw her predicament and heroically carried her back to the vessel where the ship’s doctor decided she must return ashore immediately for treatment at the local hospital. By sailing time, although not fully recovered, she was fit enough to return to Mercury and the couple continued to Auckland where they disembarked. Once there, serious complications set in, which resulted in the poor woman undergoing heart surgery and being forbidden to fly! They had no choice but to stay in New Zealand for several months (during which time the husband had his yacht stolen in Hawaii) waiting for the return of Mercury on March 2 to take them safely back to Hawaii. At the end of the cruise, now fully recovered, they threw a champagne reception (Don Perignon - no less!) for those who had helped them. That’s what I call a memorable honeymoon!
Sunset in Tahiti – photo: Brooks Aehron
As we left Tahiti the sun was climbing into bed - his bed somewhere behind the mountain which looks down on this port. Earlier in the day he had shone down on the white clouds balancing on gossamer wisps entwined beneath the mountain tops, and an air of mystery and spirituality pervaded every rock, leaf and crumb of earth. Oh, to spend more time here but, ‘tempus fugit’ and in the evening Mercury slid noiselessly out of port, her giant engines almost inaudible against the subdued hum of the air-conditioning. A tug scurried along besides us, propellers whisking white froth – like an anxious sheep dog keeping eye on its prize flock. Then we were out of the port and sailing towards Bora Bora. As the sun went down, the lights of Mercury came up, bouncing magical patterns from the creamy depths of the surrounding sea. Throughout the day the staff of ‘Mercury’ had been busy converting the entire pool and spa deck area to host a Polynesian themed evening and buffet. Henry Allen and his son Paki – two Hawaiian legends - were masters of ceremonies and, under their stewardship, this became one of those ‘special evenings’ which those lucky enough to be there, will remember for the rest of their lives.
On deck the next day, Polynesian decorations had vanished as quickly as they had arrived and the area transformed into a typical German Bierkellar! ‘Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Pah” went the band and everyone, especially the nearly two hundred German speaking guests, were enthusiastic in their praise. It was in this constantly pampered state that we sailed on to Hawaii. Relaxing sea days, magical evenings and, of course our private concerts. We were almost sorry to reach Hilo but, unlike our fellow passengers, the group had a special MAS shore excursion to look forward to. We drove past papaya fields, macadamia nut plantations sprouting wild sugar cane, eucalyptus trees, orchids and golden bamboo to Haleakala National Park which, within its small, diverse terrain, houses numerous eco systems from rain forest to arid desert! Oh yes – there’s also a volcano which decided to get active during our visit closing parts of the road with its sulpher emissions! Steam emitted from the land around as we lunched and then, after driving back down the mountain we stopped at the beautiful Liliuokalani Gardens (Japanese themed to commemorate Hawaii’s early immigrant Japanese workers) and thence to Rainbow Falls before closing our tour with souvenir shopping (of course) at Hilo Hatties!
Then back to the ship, flooded with wonderful memories of Hawaii and our amazing cruise.
It might seem invidious to single out members of the Music At Sea group for a special mention - several had birthdays and anniversaries on board but all would agree that congratulations are due to Virginia and Ernie, celebrating their Golden Wedding, Tom and Sylvie on honeymoon, Pauline and Gordon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the day they met, John and Terry for winning the shipboard equivalent of ‘Dancing with the Stars’, and Linda, who ‘wowed ‘em’ in the Passenger Show. To Austin and Barbara, who asked their suite attendant for 8 Cokes Light but received 8 Coors Light, along with all who shared their shipboard anecdotes, thank you for making us laugh!
Farewell and thank you to Cruise Director Damian for keeping his attentive eye on us and for whom nothing was too much trouble. Also to the outstanding crew of ‘Mercury’ for indulging and spoiling us beyond our wildest dreams.
Finally, Farewell to YOU, dear Reader. I would love to think
that you might be tempted to join us, so remember that in the next twelve months
there are MAS cruises to Italy, Spain, France, Scandanavia, the Caribbean and
China/Japan. Go on, make that dream REALITY! Contact Rose or John and I’ll
look forward to the pleasure of welcoming you to ‘Music At Sea’.
Until then, wherever you are in the world, this is your scribe, Brooks Aehron, in London, England, wishing you good health, happiness and the very best that life can offer.
Farewell – for now!