One of the pleasurable things about being a travel writer is people invite you places. Not Italy, Laos or Thailand (although they would all be much apppreciated, should anyone care to) but places where “ordinary people” don’t usually go.
And so today -- in jacket and tie, making an effort -- I took up an invitation to go aboard the luxury liner Queen Victoria which was briefly in Auckland.
Important matters first: for lunch on board I had the delicious wild mushroom bisque (the tartare and rillettes of salmon, cucumber and sweet chilli relish was equally well received by other diners) and followed that with the medallion of beef tenderloin with roasted shallot marmalade, a burgundy and stilton glaze, and parisienne potatoes. This was accompanied by a delightful French Beaujolais.
(Around about now you realise you have entered my world, the world of envy journalism!)
The group of us -- travel industry professionals and writers much more gainfully employed than I am -- were in the ship's elegant Britannia Restaurant which is of gloriously sweeping but restful Art Nouveau lines. Not a straight line in the place and the vessel has spacious open two-storey stairways throughout. Think that Titanic movie, but in real life. (And with real Erte art in the corridor, I noted)
As we dined -- "ate" seems too common a word -- a Mozart minuet was playing. It could have come from a live band, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I was seated at the same small table as Ann Sherry, formerly Ms Big of Westpac Banking but now the CEO of Carnival Australia which represents the historic Cunard line in New Zealand.
Sherry was candid, witty (“I got out [of banking] before it all turned to shit”) and highly informative. She not only knew her stuff (facts, figures, passenger projections and the like) but didn’t once fall for just spinning out the company line: she punctuated the conversation with jokes and aside, and noted of Auckland’s woeful passenger facilities out the window (again, "porthole" is not the word here) that, “if that was the airport we’d be shocked and horrified”.
She engaged people on a personal level. I’d been at a dinner with her once previously (in my Author Guise) and you could see why she is worth loads of money to her employers. I liked her very much, and she didn't resile from tough questions.
Somehow the conversation turned to coach tours around the South Island and how uncomfortable they were, but they did get you from scenic place to scenic place. One of our number observed the Queen Victoria was like a big coach trip because it did much the same.
This was the kind of stupid and embarrassing thing I usually say and Sherry was quick to sniff with amused derision and noted the Queen Victoria is actually more like a floating five-star hotel.
And it is.
After lunch we got an hour-long tour which was full of the wow-factor. The astonishing theatre for example -- with a nice looking bar at the back -- was modelled on a Drury Lane theatre with gracious amphitheatre-style seating. It seats about 850 (Auckland theatricals trying to get the Q theatre going would have swooned at this one) and has West-End styled private boxes. I felt under-dressed. I should have worn a frockcoat.
The ship also has a small museum, a two-storey library lifted from a stately English home (love that spiral staircase and wood-panelling), the Churchill cigar bar (yep, Cubans available) a bookshop, gymnasium and spa, and two swimming pools.
There are a few other restaurants (one with a long buffet which stretched to a vanishing point), an English pub, casino area and the Winter Garden with a retractable roof. It looked like something out a W Somerset Maugham story: all colonial ceiling fans, rattan furniture and greenery.
Oh, and for those of the internet persuasion know this: the whole ship is wireless. It is a floating hotspot.
Did I mention in one bar there was harp? I hadn’t seen one of those on a ship since . . .
I think you should pour yourself a long drink and take the virtual tour here.
Gobsmacking, huh? And I was there!
The QV, as some over-familiarly called it, is the newest liner to come to this country -- it was launched in December last year -- and signals the sharp and high end of a growing market.
Sherry said there will be 78 cruise ships coming to Auckland this year, more than 100 the following year. Cunard currently have 10 more vessels being built.
About 15 years ago I interviewed Sir Peter Blake for some reason (a yacht race?) and he spoke persuasively of Auckland being the cruise ship capital of the South Pacific.
That might be a slight exaggeration -- but this is becoming an increasingly important money-spinner and drives all kinds of other aspects of the local economy. About 2000 tourists got off the QV for a day -- some just went to town to shop, others went on sightseeing journeys, many out to Waiheke and so on -- and Sherry is right. The waterfront area is appalling to look at.
Opposite us was that disgraceful pier which looked all but abandoned and was tatty beyond comprehension. That is where there is talk of a proper cruise ship terminal. Let us hope so.
But let us not also simply kowtow to this lucrative market by building a reception area and lining it with tacky gift shops selling stuffed kiwis and baseball caps with kiwi or fern logos on them (as was happening today).
“There are only so many All Black jerseys you can buy,” laughed Sherry.
We certainly need to accommodate these many thousands of visitors, for many of whom Auckland’s piers will be their first impression of New Zealand.
But we, the people, need to consider it our space too. Another Hilton -- fine though it is -- would not be an option. One of the charms of Auckland’s Waitemata is that when you can access it -- and I say this as one who swims regularly at Mission Bay and Okahu -- is how beautiful and relatively unspoiled it is.
So whatever happens to welcome the money from the cruise ships we should also have in mind that if next year 100 ships arrive for a day in port disgorging passengers and their loot, the other 265 days of 2009 they won’t be around.
But we’ll still be here. And it is, after all, our waterfront.
So I had a wonderful day pretending to be more wealthy than I was -- although if you do the maths on 41 nights from Sydney to Southampton which sets you back $15,374 per person (and there will be other costs of course) I can see the appeal.
Think what you get (aside from meeting interesting people), do the division into a daily figure, and you can see how it is easily within some people‘s budget. The demographic is 55 and upwards.
Which is me, actually.
When I left the beautiful Queen Victoria and got my feet back on the ground I had one worrying question after an afternoon of elegance, silver service, luxury and fine art.
If we can’t get the clock outside Britomart on the old Post Office to tell the correct time, what chance have we of getting the harbour redevelopment right?