Getting to know HAL, before getting to know Nuku’Alofa

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Oceania » Tonga » Tongatapu
April 17th 2019
Published: May 16th 2019
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! would rather own little and see the world than own the world and see little of it!– Alexander Sattler

The day after our trip to Hobbiton was spent at a leisurely pace, strolling down to the Auckland waterfront, checking out the yachts we’d never be able to afford, lunching in the sunshine of Viaduct Basin with its wall to wall restaurants and bars before spending the afternoon wandering through the city centre. We passed the Auckland Sky Tower, the tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere. I visited the observation deck last time we were here in 2010. I didn’t want to spoil a once in a lifetime experience by ascending the tower again!!

Auckland is known as the city of 1,000 sails. Well, we walked down the main shopping centre and I can honestly say we did not see one shop or store that were selling their goods with any sort of discount!!

On entering the foyer of our hotel, we spotted a group of six twenty somethings, obviously excited over some sort of celebration. One of the girls was carrying two large helium filled balloons; one in the shape of a two and the other in the shape of a three. I assumed the celebration was a birthday. Whether she was celebrating a 23rd or a 32nd birthday will remain a mystery but either way, neither birthdays would be considered ‘special’. A couple of fluffy pink boas were trailing on the ground. The two well-built males were wearing sleeveless singlets clearly showing their Polynesian tattoo designs. The four females and two males were a little rowdy as they piled into the elevator. After watching the elevator pass the 2nd floor, our floor, we didn’t give these new residents a second thought. As long as we weren’t disturbed…

…after a relatively undisturbed night, I say relatively because we heard a lot of shouting outside on the street at around 2am, we checked out at 10am. Our private transfer was not due until 12 noon which gave us time for a walk down to the waterfront. I was nearly shoved to the ground as I left the hotel by one of the ‘birthday’ group. The two males of the group thought it was a good idea to have a game of tag immediately in front of the hotel forecourt. Neither had a clue about spacial awareness. ‘Boys will be boys’ is what I would have said if it was still the 1950s but after pushing the (not so little) shit away and a few well-chosen (but unprintable) expletives from me, he just turned, laughed and ran off after his mate.

At 11am, Roisin received a text. The driver had just arrived at the hotel so we hurried back and met him as he turned from chatting to the concierge. During our short journey to the ship, the taxi driver explained that the ‘party’ group are well known in Auckland and are referred to, simply as the Samoans. It was, as we had suspected, the Samoans who were making the racket outside the hotel in the early hours of this morning. They had been fined NZ$400 by our hotel for the state of their rooms, their seemingly all-night partying and general ongoing rowdiness, having received several complaints from neighbouring residents. Apparently, this is a regular occurrence and they are well known to most of the Auckland hotels who continue to talk between themselves regarding these undesirables. The Samoans are banned from many of the Auckland hotels. Unfortunately, the Waldorf Stadium Apartments, our hotel, had obviously missed that particular memo!!!

The Maasdam, part of the Holland America Line, at 55,000 tonnes is one of the smallest ships in the fifteen strong fleet. With only 1200 passengers I feel I’ll be on first name terms with most of them by the end of the cruise!! This is the smallest ship we have sailed on. Even at this modest size, the vessel is still technically a ship although maritime heathens could be excused for referring to this as a boat!! With its diminished size and black hull, the ship had the look and feel of an Isle of Man ferry. Blimey, we’re about to embark on a 12,000 mile trans Pacific crossing on the SS Manxman!!!

The ship was definitely compact with the lounges, bars, shops and casino dispersed around only two decks; decks 7 and 8. Our cabin was situated on deck 6 and was a standard ocean view. On entering Roisin noticed that the stateroom had no fridge, usually standard these days, even for the lowest category of cabin (which ours wasn’t!!). I noticed that there was a vacant space with some loose cables where our TV should have been! (Roisin has her priorities and I have mine!!) In the corner of the main desk underneath the shelf (at this point I can’t refer to it as a TV shelf as it doesn’t hold a TV!!), we found the mini bar consisting of four cans of Coke, two cans of 7-Up and a bottle of water. Who stocked this mini bar? The Temperance Society?

Remarkably, the luggage, last seen being wheeled off by a porter outside the transit shed, can take anything up to several hours to appear but was delivered inside our stateroom within ½ hour of boarding. ‘Inside’ being another first as the luggage is normally left outside each cabin.

Our first chance to interact with the crew and passengers was during Muster. Everyone has a muster station ID on their cruise card and when the signal of seven short blasts followed by one long blast, everyone must go to their muster station for a safety drill. This is compulsory by Maritime Law for all passengers and was made clear in the announcement: ‘…Those of you do not wish to participate will not be allowed to travel with the ship…!!’ That’s direct and straight to the point. No namby-pamby announcement with Holland America. I noticed a plank tied lengthways across the railings on the aft deck as we were exploring the ship earlier on. I hope it’s not the ‘walking’ kind if we displease the Captain!!

Our interaction was kept to a minimum as we all lined up at our respective muster stations. We just listened to some of the inane chatter by our fellow passenger who were already starting to annoy us. On several occasions I felt like turning to certain people and shouting: ‘FOR GOD SAKE, IT’S NOT A BOAT!!!’

It used to be mandatory that all passengers had to collect the life jacket from their cabin and bring it with them to muster. For over twelve months this has no longer been a legal requirement. We only have to stand there and watch a demo of how to correctly put a life jacket on. ‘…and the life jacket comes with a light, that is now being pointed out to you, that lights up when it comes in to contact with sea water…’ Sea Water? That’s comforting to know that if I accidentally wear the life vest in the shower, I won’t set off a distress signal!!

During the drill the safety instructions were relayed through the public address system: ‘Passengers should not throw anything overboard at any time.’ Now then. I don’t like splitting hairs but the announcer definitely specified ‘anything’…not anyone!! Despite having only been on the ship for a few hours there are a few candidates already I would like to nominate and I’m sure I saw a spare plank knocking around here somewhere!!!

The ship was due to sail at 5pm. At 4:40 the captain made his first announcement of the voyage: ‘This is your captain speaking. A very warm welcome to those guests..blah blah blah. Unfortunately…’ Oh! here we go, I thought. Any sentence that begins with the word ‘unfortunately is never good news. ‘Unfortunately, due to strong winds and high currents we are unable to drop our lines (nautical speak for cast off (which I thought was knitting speak!!)) so we will delay our departure for one hour’. Is that all? With the distance we’ll be covering in the coming weeks, a one-hour delay shouldn’t even register as having an effect on the rest of our itinerary.

On entering our cabin for the first time, a welcome pack including the daily programme of events and activities had been left on the bed by the cabin steward, Sunami. On Princess the daily programme is known as the Daily Patter, on MSC, The Daily Programme (makes sense!!) and on Holland America, the When and Where. Similar to Nigel Farage’s newly former Brexit Party, it sort of does what it says on the tin; where the activity is and at what time. However, on opening the daily programme this one actually has the luxury of advising the reader what the activities are therefore a more appropriate and more accurate name for this publication should be the What, When and Where. Perhaps I should have a word with the Guest Relations??!! One of the first activities we spotted in the programme, and is traditional on all cruises is the ‘Sail away Party’. This usually takes place on deck and is led by the entertainments team. Today’s sail away party took place on the aft of the navigation deck 10, around the sea view pool. This was the first unhosted sail away party we had witnessed. The music was super loud, but no idea where it was coming from. Usually there is a DJ with a sound system. Several guests approached waiters to ask them to turn it down. I think it was some guy in the corner with his phone using Bluetooth!! There were no more than a hundred or so guests on the aft deck so it was easy enough to find a table. A temporary stall had been erected and one of the drinks stewards was pedalling the cocktail of the day. It wasn’t long before a voice said: ‘Do you mind if we join you?’

He had a definite English accent but I couldn’t quite place the dialect. She had a very distinctive Australian twang. He started the conversation: ‘Where are you guys from, then?’

‘UK’, we both answered in unison.

‘Oh yeah! Where abouts?’ he asked.

‘Liverpool’, I replied.

He gave me a strange look remaining silent but with a smirk. I continued ‘Oh no, don’t tell me you’re a Man. United fan’.

‘Oh God! No’, he exclaimed. ‘I’m from Liverpool as well but I live in Geelong near Melbourne now. Have done for the past thirty years. I’m Keith and this is my partner Kerry.’

After our introductions and the obligatory couple of minutes explaining he pronunciation and origins of Roisin’s name, I asked, ‘So whereabouts where you brought up in Liverpool?’

‘Smithdown Road’, he replied.

‘Blimey! My mum was born and brought up on Smithdown Lane. What a small world.’ I said.

Indeed, it was. And the world got that little bit smaller when leaving our stateroom that evening to go for dinner. Who should be coming out of the cabin next door but Keith and Kerry!! What are the chances?

We now had two days at sea before arriving at our first port of call. This gave us time to familiarise ourselves with the ship. The ship had a small parade of shops. ranging from jewellery and various fashion boutiques to cosmetics and the customary logo shop. This parade is simply known as ‘The Shops’. So, if being 5,000 miles from the nearest port, someone on board says: ‘I’m just off down to the shops’, it doesn’t sound as stupid as it seems!!

Of the 557 crew aboard the Maasdam, there is one person who has a very specific job. His (or her) job title is something like ‘Elevator carpet modification operative’. However, it may be just an urban myth as no one has ever seen these nocturnal creatures but every morning the carpets in the elevator are changed to state the correct day. On our day of embarkation, the carpets in all the elevators read ‘Sunday’ but by the time we entered the elevator up to the Lido buffet on deck 11 for breakfast the following morning, the carpets had been changed to read: ‘Monday’. You know how sometimes when you engage with conversation with someone and after a few minutes think, They don’t even know what day it is? Well, all I can say is just looking around at the age of some of the passengers on board……Let’s just say it is a brilliant piece of forward thinking by HAL!!!

We later learned that the reason the sail away party was unmanned was because the Entertainment Team consists only of K K Robbins, a forty something single parent from Texas whose voice, in true Hi-Di-Hi style, will start to grate on our very souls with her constant announcements at 7am every day for the forthcoming twenty-four days!! She has one member of staff, Clifton. Clifton, or Clif as his name badge reads, ran the trivia twice daily as well as Bingo during sea days and also took some dance classes.

Back in our cabin, on a small stand-alone table stood an empty fruit bowl. In our welcome pack was a fruit requisition card with four fruit to choose from; oranges, apples, bananas and pears. Not being fond of oranges, and apples can be too crunchy, I ticked the boxes for bananas and pears and left the card for our cabin steward. The following evening, we received our complimentary fruit - one banana and an orange that looked like it had been sat at the bottom of the barrel too long!! I ate the banana but left the orange. The following day the fruit bowl was replenished… with an apple and another orange!! The fruit bowl now consisted of an apple and TWO oranges, the complete opposite from what I originally ordered!! Needless to say, the fruit bowl remained untouched for the rest of the voyage.

Our cabin is on deck six. Our window looks out on to the promenade deck. This is a deck that wraps around the ship. Next door to our cabin is what is known as a lanai cabin. These are similar to balcony cabins but instead of a balcony, the double doors open up on to the promenade deck.

Leading up to our arrival in Tonga the sea state was pretty heavy. Whilst not considering the conditions to be rough, the wind, at times raged at over 40 knots. This created plenty of movement in the Maasdam as it pitched and rolled its way to our first port of call.

After two days at sea we finally reach Nuku’Alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga. Tonga is in a unique position in the South Pacific as it is the only country that has never been colonised with its monarchy still in place over a continuous 1,000 years of rule. Consisting of 176 islands, Tonga was given the nickname, ‘The Friendly Islands’ after the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1776 and the islanders promised not to eat him!! In the 19th century the missionaries arrived. They weren’t so lucky so, more missionaries arrived who eventually converted the majority of the islanders to Christianity.

Nuku’Alofa literally means The Abode of Love and lies on the island of Tongatapu where most of the Tongan population live. The total population of Tonga is slightly over 100,000 with 23,000 living in or around the capital. The currency is called the Tongan pa’anga (TOP). I’m not sure why it is referred to as the Tonga pa’anga as I’m not aware of any other nation using this currency. I’m not surprised why so many Pacific Nations use the dollar. It’s much easier to pronounce!!

This port is only one of three where we actually dock. The rest of the ports we will be visiting are only accessible by tender but more about this in a future blog.

It is well documented through past blogs, that taxi drivers have been the scourge of Roisin and I, from trying to be charged £100 for a short journey in Dubai to the aggressive, in-your-face, almost threatening behaviour of the taxi drivers in Bali. As we walked along the quay and neared the port gates in Nuku’Alofa, we could see all the taxis lined up, their drivers holding placards showing points of interest, all hoping to secure their next ‘around the island’ fare.

‘Taxi?’ One driver asked, ‘Take you around the island?’

‘No, thanks,’ Roisin replied as we kept walking.

‘OK, No problem. Welcome to Tonga and have a nice day’.

I turned to Roisin, ‘What just happened?’ I asked as we passed the rest of the taxi drivers hassle free.

It is official that Tonga have the one of the politest taxi drivers in the world. We were almost taken aback by how polite the taxi driver was, we almost backtracked and took him up on his offer. I say - ALMOST!!!

After obtaining a map of the town, a walking trail was plotted out. This had a recommended time of two hours to complete. Despite being completely overcast, the temperature was a humid and muggy 81F 27C.The official route would take us past such land marks as the post office, a large lawn area known as Pangal Si’l; Pangal being its name and Si’l meaning small. There has to be irony in there somewhere!! Other notable attractions included the Police Station and a tree that has been here since World War II!! As exciting as all these landmarks seemed, we decided to head down Taufa’ahau Road directly opposite the quay.

The Royal Palace is a waterside residence that is easy visible from the ship. I say residence but the Royal Family don’t actually reside here. The Palace is nowadays only used for official functions. The building was pre-fabricated in New Zealand, shipped to Tonga and erected in 1867.

A short walk (although it felt much longer in the heat) and we arrived at a tent like structure. The cross on top of the front canopy indicated the religious significance of this building. We were standing in front of the Basilica of St Antony of Padua. Much of this impressive wooden building was constructed by volunteer labour between 1977-1980. Inside, the large beam joists were covered with coconut mats that had been weaved locally. The pews, altar and tables had all been hand crafted and a Stations of the Cross adorned the top of each of the pillars that supported the central dome. The Stations of the Cross were all made from coconut wood and inlaid with Mother of Pearl.

Opposite the Basilica we could see the Royal Tombs. This is a walled area of consecrated ground that has been the final resting place of all members of the Tonga Royal family since 1893. There is not a lot to see as they are not open to the public but are still on the itinerary of most of the excursions that don’t include water!! So, there would still be not a lot to see even if you took the official tour. Time to move on.

The Centennial Church was our next photo stop. This structure is a more traditional church shape, the most unique thing being it is made entirely from coral rock. This church dates back to 1888. The gates were padlocked today and the doors of the church well and truly shut tight. The priest had probably heard that a cruise ship was due in so had ran back in to the church, locked up and turned the lights off hoping all of us ‘snap happy’ tourists would quickly go away!!

Not having had wi-fi for almost four days, withdrawal was beginning to set in. We had tried cold turkey but I was starting to develop the shakes!! Hopefully help was at hand. A port talk, yesterday, mentioned that the best wi-fi in the town (although it had a cathedral/basilica it just feels wrong to refer to Nuku’Alofa as a city!) could be found at Friends, a small café that we now headed for. Experience should have told me to enquire about the wi-fi before sitting down. On asking about the wi-fi after we ordered, we were informed that the wi-fi was off-line but the engineer should be out within the next few days!! The staff were good enough to inform us that the bar across the road called Reload, had decent wi-fi. This bar was a typical open fronted timber framed bar with national flags draped across the ceiling. Pop posters from Prince to Whitney Houston adorned the olive-green walls. After confirming that the wi-fi was working I ordered some further refreshment. My choice was a beer called Maui Pacific Lager. This was a beer that was brewed locally. It was a slightly darker hue than lager but contained none of the gas.

Now for the wi-fi. We realised why the bar was called Reload. Although their wi-fi was functioning and a connection was easily made, none of my phone apps opened until finally a message popped up: ‘Reload data!! It looks like the temperature’s rising as Cold Turkey has got me on the run for at least another twenty-four hours!!

Accepting wi-fi defeat we finished our drinks and decided to head back to the relative comfort of the ship. We passed the Tongan colonial style building that is the Prime Minister’s Office and then, across from the cruise ship quay, the Police HQ. I was surprised to see a notice on a brick wall adjacent to a side entrance ‘Domestic violence and Victim Support Unit’. Really? We were now getting in to the realm of Python, Milligan and Feldman. Disembarking from the ship you are greeted by a well photographed sign: ‘Tonga – ‘The Friendly Islands’. Cross the road and walk along the side of the Police HQ. The next sign you see: ‘Domestic violence and Victim Support Unit’!!! You can’t make these things up!! New tag line: ‘Tonga – the Friendly Islands. Be beaten up with a smile!!’

Joking apart, Nuku’Alofa is a very walkable town. If it wasn’t for the humidity, the two-hour walk would have been a pleasant way to spend an afternoon fully getting to know the Tongan capital. We may have only got to see the highlights of Nuku’Alofa but tomorrow is another day where we hope to get closer to this nations people and their culture.

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