Nuku Hiva, kissing a fish, then the big push for home!!

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Oceania » French Polynesia » Nuku Hiva
May 7th 2019
Published: July 2nd 2019
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‘Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’ – Gustave Flaubert

Another day at sea before our final port of call. At about mid-day the Captain announced that we were about to pass the Islands of Great Disappointment. Back in the 18th century an expedition team had spent months at sea before landing on these islands in order to replenish supplies. They were greatly disappointed as they couldn’t even find suitable drinking water and so were named this group of islands!! Like most places that have a bad reputation, a publicist is employed and shortly thereafter a make-over ensues. This would usually include a name change to sound more appealing. Perhaps change the islands name from the Islands of Great Disappointment to the islands of Great Surprise. The surprise being that there isn’t even suitable drinking water on the island!! However, in keeping the original name, the islanders still wonder why the tourists aren’t flocking there in their thousands and the cruise ships keep on passing by!!

‘I told you we should have dropped the ‘Great’. It doesn’t hold the same connotation as Great Britain or the Great Barrier Reef!!’

7am – our final island, our final tender port. That meant it was the last time we heard the bing bong announcement at stupid o’clock by our (beloved) Cruise Director K K in a happy, bouncy, cheery voice that was unnatural for such an early time, to tell us that immigration were on board, then when most of us were just starting to snooze again another bing bong to remind us tender tickets are available and would all passengers holding tender tickets numbers 1, 2 3 and 4 to proceed to the tender station. This was repeated about every fifteen minutes until about tender ticket 45, then it became an open ticket. The message from K K was quite clear: ‘If I’m not allowed to have a lie-in, nobody is!!’

The distance between our last island, Fakarava and Nuku Hiva, our final port, was 538 miles. The water under the keel was at a depth of 3000m. When you consider the deepest part of the Pacific is 10994m, it seemed quite shallow in comparison!

The Marquesas Islands are a group of islands on the northern parameter of French Polynesia of which Nuku Hiva is the largest. The total population of the island is around 2,500

As this was our final island, Roisin forced herself on to a tender as it was her last chance of go ashore before we endured seven days at sea. Luckily the bay was like a mill pond, the temperature was a sweltering 86F but with a gentle breeze it didn’t make the trip ashore at all uncomfortable.

We were greeted by several Polynesian men dressed in traditional loincloth. They wore necklaces of teeth (probably sharks) and from the shoulder to the wrist, tattoos of a tribal design. They piped us ashore blowing through conch shells. Even the animals had made the effort to greet us. One dog we passed en route to the tourist information hut was wearing a colourful floral collar although he was too busy lapping up a nearby bowl of water to notice the invasion of strangers to his land!!

Behind the thirsty pooch and dispersed throughout the harbour area were figures carved out of basalt rock. These statues had been given overly large heads and each seemed to be wearing a pilot’s helmet giving these sculptures an alienesque appearance. Were these images created in a true likeness or was it just that the creator didn’t understand about proportion??!!! Either way, it is easy to see how conspiracy theorists feel that visitors from other worlds descending to earth were worshipped and revered by early civilisation as the first Gods!

Inside the rather small information hut there was only one couple in front of us. They wanted to book an around the island tour. This is where it got interesting. There isn’t, in fact, any public transport on the island. The assistant had actually rung a friend she knew but the call just went through to answer machine. ‘Never mind,’ she said. I’ll contact my cousin and with that she dialled a number and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up and turning to the patient couple, she continued: ‘My cousin is just out shopping with his mother at the moment but he should be available in an hour and a half. The problem is, we don’t have buses on the island so we just contact friends and relatives or anyone who can help out and they provide their cars. Unfortunately, most people are busy assisting with the ship’s tours day.’ The couple, still determined to have an island tour, left their names and promised to return in one and a half hours. We picked up our plan of the town and promptly left. Outside, a line of cars and trucks had pulled up along the quayside. Passengers alighting from the tender were being shepherded in to the eclectic mix of vehicles; saloons, hatchbacks, estates, pickups, 4-wheel drive of all shapes and sizes. Anyone who owned a car seemed to be getting in on the action, and at the prices the ship was charging for the island tour, I’m sure it was worth the drivers while!! Some passengers had the luxury of aircon whilst others climbed up and sat in the back of the pickups. As the procession left the town it looked like a convoy of rednecks heading down the road on a vigilante mission!!

What now?’ Roisin asked.

Well,’ I said referring to the map, ‘we’ve got either a cathedral, a monument to the dead or a supermarket!!’. The cathedral it was then. This, we found, was a short hike up a hill heading inland. The provided map was a bit basic and this was the reason (MY reason!!) why the cathedral we visited wasn’t the cathedral at all. On reflection when I came to do the research for this blog, the structure wasn’t even important enough to be given a name. On the legend to the map it just appears as ‘church’!! The wooden building had a red corrugated, slanted roof that overlapped the entrance and was supported by four plain square wooden columns. A balustrade ran around the grounds of the church. A small belfry was perched to one side of the roof like an over-sized chimney!!

Walking was a chore in this humidity. We agreed to head back to the harbour where we took advantage of the free WIFI of a small al fresco café.

Behind the café stood an inconspicuous hill but with a very conspicuous sculpture atop. This was Tiki Tuhiva. It portrayed a warrior escaping the interior of a Tiki and is the highest contemporary structure in the Pacific with the woman tiki towering at a whopping 40 feet and the warrior a generous 26 feet. This hill, itself, is the where the U.S. built a fort in 1813 from where they used Taiohae as a temporary base in which to raid British shipping in the Pacific during the War of 1812. The outpost was named Fort Madison, in honour of then U.S. President James Madison. The French renamed the spot Fort Collette after they took over in 1842.

Back on board and there was some commotion on deck. Everyone had gathered to peer over the side. Rumour had it that there were dolphins in the bay. Oh no! I thought. Not dolphins. We’ve seen these playful creatures close up. I’m not interested in watching a tiny speck, that frankly could be anything, bob up then disappear from sight. From deck fourteen, the dolphins would look even smaller. As if reading my mind, someone turned to me and said: ‘It’s not dolphins this’s Rays!!’

‘Who’s Ray??! Oh, THOSE kind of rays,’ I mused to myself!!

Looking over the side of the ship, I immediately spotted two clear shapes gliding near the surface of the water. These were two of the biggest Manta Rays I have seen. Not that I’ve seen many in my time but of those I have seen, these were the biggest!! Black and white in colour they performed for the passengers of the Maasdam for ten minutes, synchronised in perfect harmony. Several canoes paddled over to check out what all the commotion was, this must have spooked the rays as they suddenly turned. The show was over, the rays were gone.

This evenings trivia was purely based on Polynesian culture, history and geography much to the groans of all participants. Well, all bar one. We learned something new this evening. Bill had worked for ten years for the Peace Corps and was based in the South Pacific. He was on fire. There were some tough questions but Bill answered with confidence, and who were we to argue? We scored an impressive 17 out of 17. Unfortunately. we weren’t the only team with a secret weapon and we lost on the tie break. This was day sixteen. There had been over thirty-five trivias and this is the first time that the victors had won so we were magnanimous in defeat

‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw away the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. EXPLORE, DREAM, DISCOVER’ – Mark Twain

On day seventeen, the day we left Nuku Hiva, we had travelled a whopping 4,014 miles. There were still another 2,909 miles before we hit San Francisco, our disembarkation port, all of which were spent at sea.

Seven days at sea. It was surprising how quickly the time passed. As there were no more ports on the itinerary, the early mornings had become ‘bing, bong’ free periods.

At our last port, Nuku Hiva, we were only seven degrees south of the equator. From our first island stop in Tonga, the weather had been very humid and the sea state had been wild at times with a heavy swell. During the captain’s first announcement after leaving Nuku Hiva, he explained that once we crossed the equator in to the Northern hemisphere the pressure would decease so it wouldn’t be so humid. The sea state should also settle down. This is all because we would be entering an area of the pacific known as the Doldrums. That’s ironic, I thought. That’s the feeling I’ve been getting every time I’ve entered the theatre!! Speaking of which, the evening of the first day at sea, saw us being entertained in the theatre by a Polish vibraphone player who now lived in Melbourne, Australia. His act started off lively enough and there was no doubt about his extraordinary talent. However, after ten minutes he moved to the grand piano where he thought Chopin would get the party going!! After a few minutes I looked around the (once again) sparse auditorium where most people’s eyes were starting to glaze over. Several of the audience, near the back, were resting theirs!! I’ve no idea as to whatever possessed the performer to think that Chopin was the way forward? I usually find his music dreary and uninspiring but is a good tonic if I’m having trouble sleeping!! Chopin’s compositions are mainly written for piano and usually performed without accompaniment. It reminds me of the incidental music for silent movies such as Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. (and not the funny ones either!!)

We were both pleased to see Holland America kept up with tradition by holding a Neptune ceremony. Historically, this was an initiation ceremony for all crew who had never crossed the equator in a sailing vessel. It is where Pollywogs took a series of initiation tests in order to become Shellbacks. This was Roisin and my fourth crossing of the equator by sea so we were well and truly full paid up Shellbacks. We even had certificates to prove it!! The ceremony was at the ungodly time of 10am around the pool. The daily programme reminded people that the pool would be closed after the ceremony for cleaning. This sounded like fun and we weren’t disappointed.

In the past, we have had Neptune ceremonies where passengers sign up for the initiation alongside rookie crew members. On one occasion the ship failed to have any sort of ceremony much to the dismay of many passengers. This interpretation was more of a show. Rows of chairs were laid out around the small aft pool. A lectern was erected at one side of the pool and the stage was set. The only initiates were twenty or so unsuspecting crew members. Most departments were represented; the house keeping staff, the restaurant, even the engine room. Clif was the advocate who read out the (fictitious) crimes of the initiates whilst a crew member played Neptune and K K, the cruise Director, his wife. Once the crimes were read out, the initiates were made to ‘kiss’ the fish. On this occasion it was a very large wet one but, in the past, an octopus had been used. (a nice slimy alternative!!) The initiates then had to pull themselves along a trestle table on their bellies whilst four assistants, dressed in hospital scrubs proceeded to gunge the poor ensigns from head to foot!! If that wasn’t enough of an ordeal, behind a table alongside the pool, four Senior Officers sat and provided a verdict by showing the sign of the thumb!! Neptune had the final say but usually listened to his ‘jury’. Thumbs down and the accused were pushed head first in to the pool, a thumbs up and s/he was allowed to sit quietly on the side of the pool. This had been the most entertaining show of the trip so far. Cliff had all the terminology correct and the crimes, although more of an ‘in-joke’ between staff, were still very funny.

EXC continued to have some bizarrely titled seminars. One was called: ‘Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi discusses the foremost functional technology of the Pacific Islands, Tufunga Lalava’. What does that even mean?? I never found out although I was confident the speakers name was in the title somewhere!!

Our second day at sea and everyone was out on deck. A helicopter swooped down and started circling around the ship. No one knew where this had come from as there was no land for hundreds of miles. The Heli certainly wasn’t military. There was however a small fishing boat a few miles off the starboard bow. (why is it always off the starboard bow? In the past, there has been everything found there from dolphins to Klingons!!) We did not find out the answer until several days later when we were treated to a very informal but informative session of ‘Ask the Captain’. Captain Ryan Whittaker made himself available in the theatre for an hour where he gave a short presentation on life at the helm before opening the floor to any questions from the audience. The theatre was completely full for once. There was standing room only at the back. Questions ranged from personal hobbies and interests when he was not working to the more technical questions that only the captain and the person asking the question understood!! The Captain did explain that the helicopter was indeed part of the fishing boat. The helicopters fly over the ocean identifying where the best shoals of fish are. The pilot of the helicopter was curious and just veered a little too close.

A few days left and the temperature turned cold overnight. From being a pleasant 75F the daytime temperature was now only 55F. For this reason, the ship became a little busier indoors. So much so, it was difficult to find a quiet corner. Roisin and I ended up in the Hudson Room a small meeting room on deck 7 midships. As there were a number of square card tables laid out, this room was mainly used for Bridge and other board games. There was a group of four occupying a table behind but there were six tables vacant. We settled ourselves down to read or write up some notes for the blog. After an hour or so two friendly faces appeared in the doorway. It was Anthony (with the ‘th’ sound!!) and Irene although their faces weren’t that friendly as, to their distain, we were sitting at THEIR table.

We always sit there, protested Irene. ‘We play bridge here every sea day, ’she continued ‘.

I looked around at the empty tables as sarcastically as I could!!

That’s OUR table’, demanded Anthony (don’t forget the ‘th’ sound as you say his name!!)

‘I don’t see your name written on it,’ I retorted

Don’t be so childish,’ scorned Irene.

‘You started it!!!’ I replied. ‘Were going for something to eat anyway. See you at trivia this evening.’

Despite having a table for two in the dining room for the first few weeks, for the past week or so we had been dining in the good company of Bill and Dawn from our evening trivia team. On this particular evening they were trying out the taster menu at the Pinnacle Grill. These was one of their perks having travelled with Holland America five times before. We were preparing for an evening on our own for once when Swiss Peter asked if we would like to join him and his companion Orlando, for dinner. Peter, in his 70s, has to now walk with the aid of a stick but this never seemed to dissuade him from doing anything an able bodied person can do. He does it, only slower!! Peter has travelled extensively in his life for both business and pleasure. He has visited far flung places such as the Galapagos, Bhutan and even Antarctica. It made us feel like for all the travelling we’d done; we’d done no travelling at all!! His anecdotes were amusing but he knew instinctively that it wasn’t all about him. He asked us about our travel antics and our future plans. It wasn’t long before we were invited to Zurich. Peter’s English was impeccable but Orlando’s less so. Orlando was originally from Gran Canaria but had lived in Switzerland for the past four years. As we had been to Zurich earlier this year, it wasn’t in our forthcoming plans….it is now!!

We won five games of trivia during this trip. Slim pickings but considering we were lacking by a few points only, for the first few weeks, we didn’t do too bad. On the final afternoon, we managed a cool 16 out of 17. We thought we’d finished on a high but one team scored 17/17 although they did have ten in their team!! We had been marking our own papers all voyage so it is not a wonder that 17 out of 17 was a more regular score!! The Trivias had been pretty cordial with hardly any of the questions being challenged and accepting the quiz masters answer as final. On the few occasions when an answer was queried, it was futile in arguing with Clif. His answer to everything was: ‘Would it have made a difference!!?’

Finally, the cruise, was at an end. We had met some interesting people. As always there were good points and bad points about the ship. The food and the entertainment was not as good as I had expected. Both were a bit hit and miss. Thankfully, some more of the seasoned Holland America travellers that we got to know were also a little disgruntled with the galley and theatre. The staff however were so lovely. There was not one grumpy face amongst 800 or so crew. There was never a queue at the Customer Service desk, not even on disembarkation day when most folk query their final invoice. It is a sign that there isn’t much to complain about. And they were right. Although our expectations were probably a little high, this may have not been the best ship we’ve sailed on but it certainly hasn’t been the worst.

One thing puzzled us though. We have had several stints of seven continuous days at sea but always in the middle of a cruise so there was still something to look forward to. These seven days at sea were like an anti-climax as the next time we hit shore was to disembark. Both new and experienced cruisers agreed that Holland America could have dropped one of the islands it visited in favour of a stop of at a port in Hawaii.

The big question: Would we travel Holland America again? The answer: Not out of choice but we would always check their itineraries and if they were sailing to a destination where we wanted to go, we would certainly consider them.

On the way from San Francisco to the airport, the taxi driver asked had we been anywhere nice. We briefly summarised our South Pacific adventure. ‘Wow!’, he said, ‘That’s a trip of a lifetime’. I didn’t have the heart to tell him: Yes! So much so this is the second time we’ve done it!!

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