Who among us hasn’t dreamed of escaping our humdrum lives and fleeing to a tropical island? You could wake up every morning to the rustling of coconut trees, the rhythm of surf on the sand and a slow ooze of time that knows no alarm clocks or deadlines. You could wear flowers in your hair, slurp mangoes, and swim in a warm lagoon amidst a kaleidoscope of fish.
Of course, few of us will ever give in to the ultimate fantasy and grow happily wrinkled in the island sun. Still, on a Crystal Cruises journey across the Pacific, you can indulge the fantasy for a couple of weeks. Time slows, beauty unfolds, blue lagoons beckon with getaway daydreams. Indeed, I’m barely out of Pape’ete airport before a garland of flowers is around my neck. Humid air hugs me like a grandmother, and I’ve already torn off half my city clothes.
The Tahitian capital of Pape’ete is a dishevelled, concrete town made soft at the edges with bougainvillaea and a verdant backing of hills. Crystal Symphony sits in the harbour, a graceful white ship amid fishing trawlers and inter-island ferries. Its interior is a suave cocoon of coolness and tranquillity. A butler settles me into my immaculate cabin. A drink appears in a glass spotted with condensation, cool against my fingers. A quick shower and I’m ready for adventure.
As sunset begins to stain the sky we sail away, Tahiti’s mountains looming at our stern, a pink-blue ocean unfurling ahead. I’m looking forward to this journey across half the Pacific. There’ll be no need to inspect museums or dodge tour groups, no need for dutiful sightseeing in cathedrals, no queues or traffic. The only crowds in these islands are tropical fish flitting on reefs, and shoals of flapping stingrays. We’ll be absorbed into the slow island life of ports in which dogs doze on verandas and ladies with garlands in their hair gossip in markets. Everywhere we go, grinning kids throw themselves from wharves into the water with a kaboom.
Most of all, this trip is about nature at its most brilliant and colourful. Sands are blinding white, lagoons absurdly blue, hills draped in lush emerald forest. Arriving by ship showcases the Pacific Islands at their most flamboyant. Jagged mountains emerge from a vast ocean in peacock-shimmering skirts of water and coral. We sail into harbours that flaunt 360-degree landscapes of improbable beauty.
The first is Opunohu Bay in Mo’orea, where pyramids of rock fang the sky and the lagoon is an artist’s palette of cobalt, aquamarine and electric blue. Here a shore excursion has me drifting over translucent water in a small boat for an encounter with stingrays. We slip into the lagoon, and a dozen of the creatures undulate their giant wings around us. I reach out and touch their strangely slimy, rubbery bodies. Small sharks drift past, grinning. Underwater amazement is a constant on this cruise. My skin shrivels and my hair is thick with salt, but I can’t stay away from the water. In Bora Bora over the next two days, there’s more, but different. The lagoon is wider, the water bluer, and snorkelling takes me among angelfish and Moorish idols. Other fish, gaudy as drag queens, have pouting blue lips, yellow feathery fins or outrageous stripes. Coral blossoms in green and orange. Then it’s onto a beach that’s the epitome of the castaway dream, with squeaky fine and pure white sand. I wallow in the warm water, eating chunks of pineapple cut up by our boat driver.
Unlike these surrounds, Crystal Symphony doesn’t flaunt itself. The 848-passenger ship, which underwent a multi-million-dollar refurbishment in 2017, has luxury without razzle-dazzle. Its décor is elegant, all muted blues and greys; its artworks are discreet; its atmosphere muted. For that reason, it has a loyal troupe of discerning repeat customers who know that efficiency, impeccable service and a quality experience beat showy opulence. It’s a satisfying combination that few ships manage with such style. As we sail towards the Cook Islands, there are myriad ways to pass my time. Crystal Cruises has one of the most extensive enrichment and entertainment programmes of any upmarket cruise line – guests can enjoy lessons in subjects such as yoga, bridge, cooking and art.
The ship’s Computer University is perennially popular for its lessons in web design or Excel and Photoshop use. Experts in history, international politics and Polynesian culture provide insightful lectures – and in the evenings, there are impressive theatre and music shows. There are inevitably several days at sea on any Pacific cruise, so I’m happy with all these distractions – and just as happy that I have time to kick back, too. Crystal Symphony has a good library, cinema, upscale pool deck, and plenty of lounge areas and bars in which to relax. I like the high perch
of the Silk Bar, with its parrot-motif décor and informal ambiance, and the more elegant Palm Court for afternoon teas and evening cocktails. It provides a great vantage point at the prow of the ship, which is where I want to be in these always spectacular Pacific destinations.
Bora Bora is dominated by old volcanic peaks, but in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands there’s proof that even flat landscapes can be dazzling. Its vast lagoon is 45km around and one of the world’s great sights, thanks to its astounding colours. A shore excursion takes us out to One Foot Island, one of the most beautiful spots in the entire Pacific. There’s so much blue here I scarcely know if I’m swimming through sea or sky.
That evening I fall happily asleep, and next day wake in time to see the sail into Rarotonga. Some travellers sneer at cruising, but I’ve been wafted to our destination with no effort, no airport waits and no discomfort. As Rarotonga looms and the surf booms, I have that old familiar excitement at the thought of a day spent in another marvellous place. Soon I’m off into the rugged interior of the island by jeep, climbing between mango trees and taro plantations into the hills – where the magnificent views plunge down to the island’s vivid fringing lagoon.
Spoilt for choice
As evening falls again, I’m back on board and enjoying a dinner of wok-cooked lobster, crispy duck salad and stir-fried black pepper beef at Chinese restaurant Silk Kitchen. It’s one of several inclusive speciality dining venues on Crystal Symphony – and, while all are good, I reckon the tastiest are the Brazilian barbecue venue, Churrascaria, and the North Italian restaurant, Prego. Many ships have Italian restaurants, but I think Prego is among the best, offering a choice of both classic and more contemporary dishes that – like the ship itself – avoid fuss and flamboyance but deliver big flavours. The gnocchi are soft as marshmallows, and a signature porcini mushroom soup would make the angels sing.
By the time we arrive in New Zealand, we’ve left tropical intensity behind, though the blue is still there as we sail into the Bay of Islands and anchor off Waitangi. It’s a chance to have a change of pace, so I opt for a shore excursion that delves into New Zealand’s Māori and European settler history at the Waitangi Treaty House and colonial-era town of Kerikeri. It’s a good complement to an on-board lecture I attended a few days previously, that covered early Western contact with Māori society, providing an insightful account of colonial exploration, commercial ventures and settlement and its consequences for New Zealand’s Māori inhabitants.
It’s fitting that this cruise ends with harbours just as superb as the ones where it began. The sail into Tauranga is magnificent, as the ship heads towards wild beaches and slides in behind the extinct volcanic cone of Mount Maunganui into a sheltered bay backed by purple hills. Maybe this is the place to escape urban stress and spend the rest of my life eating cockles on the shoreline. I can always dream, even as the ship sails onwards.
A 14-night ‘Pape’ete to Auckland’ cruise departing on 4 February, 2020, visits the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Waitangi. Prices are all-inclusive.
Contact Crystal Cruises on 1300 059 260 or visit crystalcruises.com.au