Some cruises are about the ports, others are about the water. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean – with only five stops during a 17-day voyage – Tim Johnson has no choice but to adopt a more relaxed pace
The island reveals itself, albeit slowly. From the top deck I spot it, just a thin line on the flat Pacific, like a single stroke of a pencil, a barely visible line drawn on a page that's both blue and unimaginably enormous. But as we approach, there's more. First, the smells, a unique mix of wood smoke and flowers.
Then sounds, horns and engines, a busy town going about its business, everyone a little too busy to notice the massive ship that's headed their way. And then, just as the island's flanks begin to wrap themselves around us, I can actually feel it, the rhythms of a kingdom built on coral, a fascinating and beautiful place set in a very far-flung corner of the world.
I'm approaching the island of Tonga, a South Pacific paradise – and just one of the very few ports of call on my voyage across this vast ocean, one that covers more than one-third of the Earth's surface.
Boarding Cunard's elegant MS Queen Victoria in Chile, I sail so far west, that west actually becomes east, crossing the International Date Line and many thousands of nautical miles, all the way to New Zealand. Chasing the horizon for 17 nights, I learn how to best spend a sea day, and how to truly appreciate all of that water.
Voyages like this are something of a throwback to the golden era of ocean liners, when (for the wealthy) crossing an ocean involved tuxedos and steamer trunks, and nobody had ever heard of an "e-ticket." My trip is but a small slice of Cunard's World Cruises program, when all three ships in their fleet leave Southampton, England, for different, distant points across the globe, cruising for as many as 132 days at a stretch before returning to their home port. This exercise – observing the slow approach from the top deck as we roll into port – was actually a recommendation provided by our captain, with whom I chat partway through the voyage. "It truly gives you a sense of arrival," Commodore Chris Rynd tells me, with a posh English accent. "You see it, gracefully, something that's not usually possible in this age of air travel."
Of the 17 days of the voyage, 12 are at sea, and, after we cast lines, the South American mainland fading into an inky blackness, I quickly learn to love the relaxing pace, nowhere to go, nothing to do, adrift in endless horizons. I spend my mornings watching the water from my private balcony, and my afternoons exploring the ship. I show up for many of the sports challenges, suiting up in athletic shorts and sneakers to take on septuagenarian opponents in less-than-blood-pumping activities such as paddle ball (a sort of scaled-down version of tennis), Ping-Pong and putting competitions. I catch many matinees in the Royal Court Theatre, a lovely West End-style venue (complete with fancy boxes) that hosts a wide array of acts, from magicians and comedians to musicians and singers. I join a trivia team and am inevitably tripped up by the British-oriented questions. I keep a regular, late-afternoon appointment with the man running the poolside grill at the aft of the ship, indulging in daily hot dogs, followed by a long soak in one of the hot tubs.
And I do laundry. On a voyage of this length, it's inevitable (unless you indeed pack a steamer trunk). One day, while awaiting a machine, I witness a minor spat between two of the five or so older cruisers gathered there. "Oh, that's nothing," one woman tells me, and shares a story of a dispute over who had next dibs on a dryer; losing out, one of them, insidiously, came back with a handful of pillow mints and shoved them into the machine, ruining the other man's clothes (and the dryer). On another voyage, two women argued over a washer, and it ended with one striking the other in the face – with an iron. "She was escorted off the ship," the woman remembers, shaking her head slowly.
But my adventures surely go well beyond the laundry room. En route to the heart of the Pacific, we circumnavigate both Easter Island and its iconic Moai statues, as well as Pitcairn Island, a British Overseas Territory that's home to about 50 residents, many of them descendants of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty. A tiny dot with no airstrip or regular ferry service to the outside world, the island is completely isolated, and its residents come on board to share with us a little slice of their culture, singing a couple of songs and selling wood carvings of sharks (with real shark teeth inserted) and telling stories of living a quiet life under the palms in the middle of the ocean.
And, after more than a week on the waves, I finally set foot back on dry land, with the Queen Vic calling at both Tahiti and Bora Bora. At the former, I climb into an open-backed jeep that drives deep into Tahiti's lush crater, spotting waterfalls and sweeping vistas. At the latter, I indulge in an afternoon of luxury, lounging on the beach of the Four Seasons Bora Bora, getting both a massage and a tan. And later, I spend the day touring Tonga's famous blowhole and palm groves, disembarking onto that island, the one that was once just a pencil line on the horizon, taking time to chat with the ultrafriendly locals.
And the evenings? They're mostly my own. While I venture down to the formal dining room a few times, joining my assigned table filled with posh and talkative Britons in tuxedos and ball gowns (my own discount-rack department-store khakis and mismatched tie standing out in contrast), I generally opt for a more graceful end of the day, venturing back out to my balcony and my beloved waves.
It's my nightly ritual, and on my last evening, reclined in my chair, a bottle of decent Chilean red open beside me, I watch as the light fades, the southern sun sinking into the sea, a familiar rhythm pounding below, the hull of this great ship cutting through the Pacific. I have a room-service club sandwich on the way, plenty of packing later and a busy schedule planned, starting tomorrow, in New Zealand. But for this moment, right now, I feel like I could bask in this golden glow forever.
The writer was a guest of Cunard Cruise Line. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
- Cunard’s three Queens depart on World Cruises every January from Southampton, England, calling at ports rarely seen by cruise ships. Next year’s itineraries include 48 countries and both a westbound and eastbound global circumnavigation. For those who cannot spare the time (or cash) for such a long journey, the trans-ocean crossings (Atlantic and Pacific) tend to be the most reasonably priced sections of the voyage, ranging from a week at sea, to almost three; cunard.com.
- In Chile, stay at the Grand Hyatt Santiago, where many rooms feature expansive views of the snow-capped Andes mountain range. Indulge in a treatment at their on-site spa or lounge by the massive tropical pool in preparation for your cruise, then embark on your ship in Valparaiso, about 90 minutes down the road; santiago.grand.hyatt.com.
- In New Zealand, plan to spend some extra time around Auckland, where you can really stretch your legs after a long voyage on the ship. Just north of the city (less than an hour away), the Matakana wine region is a hidden and beautiful place, bringing you up close with growers and producers, with local taste tours taking visitors into olive groves, chocolate shops, dairies and, of course, wineries (you can even overnight at a spot such as Takatu Lodge, which is surrounded by vineyards). And even closer to town, Auckland’s wild western coast features roaring waterfalls, lush rain forests and pristine beaches. Within the city limits, explore Auckland’s many revitalized neighbourhoods, including the shops and restaurants at Britomart, and hipster-cool Ponsonby Road; newzealand.com/ca.