A TOWN AT SEA

by Ian Heydon

img08I grew up in the New South Wales country town of Gundagai, population around 2000. That’s about the same number as passengers on a cruise liner. Towns and ships have a bit in common. In any town you’ll find people from all walks of life – teachers, students, doctors, lawyers, labourers, shopkeepers, newlyweds, divorcees, wild youths, teetotallers, drunks, churchgoers, Liberal voters, Labor voters and characters kindly dubbed as ‘colourful’. Same with a cruise ship.

And all these disparate people join to make up a community. Cemented by geography and a similar sense of purpose, they get along and pretty much have a relaxed and rewarding time. Again, same with a cruise ship.

In a country town you have facilities and entertainment – swimming pool, library, medical centre, florist, hairdresser, restaurants, pubs and clubs. Again, same, but better on a ship. Within walking distance from your cabin you have a choice of swimming pools and whirlpool spas, a library, Internet access, a medical centre, a gymnasium & health spa, florist, hairdresser, jogging track, a choice of bars & lounges, restaurants and a pizzeria. In a town you’ll find pokies at the pubs and clubs. On the ship, it’s a full casino. In a town you get occasional live entertainment. On a ship you get it every night. Throw in duty free shopping, a deck lounge with a good book and exotic ports of call and you have something pretty special. Throw in the romance of the tropics for couples, lots to keep the kids occupied for families and party time for singles and everybody’s happy!

I’ve been on cruises and I can certainly understand the attraction. And also why dieting may be necessary when you get back home. Much of my cruising experience, however, has come from observing passengers arriving in Port Vila for the day when I lived in Vanuatu for three years. Town bustles with new people exploring the markets, buying bargain duty free, taking tours, climbing waterfalls, snorkelling, diving and lunching in the restaurants and bars.

One quick story of an unhappy passenger though…

img09I met a young bloke in a Port Vila bar and struck up a conversation. He was “off the cruise ship” but flying home the next day because he’d been a self-confessed ‘idiot’. His parents gave him the cruise to celebrate the end of his school days but he partied a bit too hard. His memory was a bit blurred but totally drunk he hijacked someone’s wheelchair for a derby down the halls, ending by taking out a couple of other passengers when he failed to see some stairs approaching.

Security detained him for the rest of the night and arranged for him to depart the cruise. No refund, plus an airfare and a lot of embarrassment and shouting when he got back home. Cruise ships are great for partying but, for the comfort of all passengers, there are limitations.

For balance, a happier tale. I happened to be visiting Vila on a day when a ship wedding we had organised was scheduled. I was curious because the bride and groom had invited over 70 guests. I just hovered about, watching the transfers and logistics (everything went like clockwork). Following the ceremony, photos and champagne popping I introduced myself to the bride and congratulated her – she burst into tears, hugged me and said, “Thank you, this is the happiest day of my life!”

After those wonderful years in Vanuatu, when I returned to Australia, I set up a travel agency to specialise in travel to the Pacific, especially for those wanting a wedding in the tropics. To be honest, it’s a fantastic job because newlyweds are always happy and positive and I get to put up with the hardship of visiting our destinations, only in the name of research of course!

Ian Heydon is the author of The Small Guide to A Big Country and Tropical Holiday Deals consultant