Maureen Marriner cruises in the wake of last century's flying boats.
The height of luxury travel in the South Pacific nearly 60 years ago was a trip from Auckland flying Air New Zealand predecessor Teal in one of their Solent flying boats on The Coral Route.
We are on a slower "boat" but with 14 passenger decks the Celebrity Solstice is 12 decks ahead of the Solents and has the size, scope and crew to far surpass the flying boats' silver service.
They took in Suva, Fiji; Apia, then in Western Samoa; the Cook Islands and Tonga before heading across on the final leg to Tahiti. We are on a 13-night round trip from Auckland, with two stops in Fiji, one each in Samoa and American Samoa and two in Tonga.
The immediate advantage of a round trip from your home port is the absence of airline hassles and luggage-weight worries — you can bring as many clothes and shoes as you like but on a cruise in the laidback Pacific with daytime temperatures in port between 28C and 32C, you don't need a lot.
After two days at sea we arrive at Lautoka, Fiji's Sugar City, on a millpond morning. We board shuttles into town and are directed to "the market" — actually two malls, whose main attraction must be the air conditioning. To find the fruit and vege market we divert off the main street, divided down the middle by an avenue of large trees that shade a disused sugarcane railway line. We have missed the mango season but enjoy halves of chilled, peeled pineapple with their own built-in handles.
We are welcomed back to the ship, as we are at each port, with iced face cloths and iced water. The non-bottled, non-fizzy water on board is known as Celebrity water, purified on board with temperature the only difference between what is poured in a restaurant or what runs in your bathroom basin, or even toilet.
The next day we dock in Suva, right in town, where reality reflects the ads: you do pass people who give an easy "Bula" and a smile.
Meandering the streets and alleys of Suva, you need to be aware of where you are walking — a step up or down can be randomly encountered and the footpath surface is often broken. We are headed to the Grand Pacific Hotel, built in 1914 for the Union Steamship Company, in the style of Singapore's Raffles. It was to here that a fleet of Daimlers brought Coral Route passengers from nearby Laucala Bay. The hotel fell into disrepair in the 90s but is now revived and extended, the original buildings reflecting what was thought to be the golden age of travelling. We find ourselves revived by gin and tonics on the deep cool terrace of the Steamship Bar.
Most nights on the Solstice we're in the main dining room, the Grand Epernay, two floors linked by a two-storey wine wall. Our waiter (Turkish), assistant waiter (Indonesian) and sommelier (Mauritius) quickly get to know our tastes. Their mantra is: "We will make it happen".
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Blu restaurant is deemed the healthy alternative for Aquaclass guests (they love the spa). Again, service is brilliant: "Greek yoghurt with your fruit platter, madam, of course, and maple syrup? Not a problem."
"More tea? More juice? Let me help you with the foil on that butter, sir, they can be tricky."
After another day at sea we're in Apia, another Coral Route stop. It's hot, very hot and after a walk through town (more broken footpaths) and souvenir shopping at the stifling market, we adjourn to the newly restored Sheraton Aggie Grey's, which was where — when it was Aggie Grey's Hotel (icon of the South Pacific) — Coral Route passengers had some rest. We relax with a poolside lunch at The Feast restaurant, gallingly unprepared to find that the ship's passengers are able to use the pool.
That night we dine at Tuscan Grill, which also carries a surcharge. It's at the stern on deck 5 with panoramic views. We have left Apia dock, about a third of the way along the northern coast of the island of Upolu at 5pm and are due in American
Samoa at 8am the next day — that's only 150km, so we are on a very slow boat to Pago Pago on Tutuila. Upolu is only 75km long and we run out of daylight before we lose sight of land. As the name suggests, the Tuscan Grill is big on all types of steaks, and they make their own pasta, pizzas and delicious limoncello.
My first impression of Pago Pago is a scattering of buildings at the foot of soaring Jurassic hills so lush it seems the greenery is ready to pounce. Civilisation need only turn its back for a short time and all evidence of it would be swallowed up.
An open-windowed bus tour — 12 passengers max on wooden bench seats and with minimum suspension — takes two to three hours depending on the length of stops for photos and drinking coconuts. It's an island of lean village dogs, clean utes and a tuna-canning factory that thrums all day and possibly night and, at close quarters, pongs.
All tours are timed to be back at the dock well before departure time. The newsletter delivered to cabins reiterates this daily and warns that passengers who fail to meet the deadline have the responsibility of making their own arrangements to rejoin the ship. After Pago Pago there are 617km to Neiafu in the northern Vava'u group.
Although the small town sees many yachts in its deep-water harbour, the Celebrity Solstice is the biggest cruise ship to visit and as tenders disgorge their passengers, the infrastructure is challenged.
We have another slow boat overnight down to our last stop before Auckland, the Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa, on Tongatapu. Again plenty of smiles and, at last, the luxury of unbroken footpaths. Our self-guided walking tour takes in the tiered royal tombs, the palace, hordes of waving girls on the verandas of Queen Salote College and Mt Zion, the highest point in town but really only a hillock — this place is seriously flat. Our guide pamphlet directs us to the Royal Nuku'alofa Club, which it says is a link to the old South Pacific — another Coral Route link perhaps? Unfortunately, the exterior is a little mundane and the interior remains a mystery: entry is restricted to members.
From here the flying boats headed to Aitutaki and Papeete but we, now utterly chilled, turn to a chillier home.