CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We're eclipse nuts.
I mean, who else would take a five-week vacation in order to watch the moon block out the sun for less than four minutes?
My wife, Nancy, and I got hooked almost 15 years ago, when a friend suggested we see an eclipse in the Caribbean. Since then we've chased the moon's shadow through the suburbs of Munich (unsuccessfully; it was cloudy) and off the southern coast of Turkey.
In the process we learned cruising is a pretty fine way to explore the world, and that a cruise ship makes a good platform for eclipse viewing.
Six years had passed since our last trek through the Mediterranean on the Costa Classica -- yes, that Costa, but a different ship -- so early last year I got the itch to see whether there were any good eclipses coming up.
By "good" I mean one that lasts more than a minute or two. Eclipses can last for a few seconds to nearly 8 minutes, depending on how close the moon is to Earth. We skipped the 2008 eclipse in Mongolia and Siberia, for example. Too far away for less than 2 1/2 minutes of totality.
I learned an eclipse was coming up in Australia and the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 13/14 (the date depends on which side of the International Date Line you're on). I Googled travel agencies that specialize in eclipse tours.
After considering a land tour near Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef (too expensive) and a round-trip cruise out of Sydney, I found a 19-night cruise on the Celebrity Millennium from Honolulu to Sydney, with stops in American Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.
I checked with Nancy, but it was a no-brainer. Repositioning cruises, where a ship shifts from its summer to winter location, are famously good buys, and Celebrity was a step up from the mainstream cruises we'd taken before.
We used frequent-flier points to snag round-trip tickets to Hawaii, albeit in coach (cattle) class. Then, since we figured we'd be unlikely to be return to Australia anytime soon, we tacked on an extra week in Sydney. We also added four days in Hawaii at the tail end, to break up our trip home.
Once we added in a few days for long-distance flights, our eclipse trip had ballooned to an astounding 35 days -- double any previous vacation we'd taken. But how often do you get to sail halfway across the Pacific, visit tropical islands and have extended stays in exotic ports? For us, this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Hurricane Sandy nearly ended it before it started. She knocked out our power and delayed our flight out. If we hadn't built in an extra travel day in our schedule, we'd have missed our ship.
Everything worked out, though. Our power came back on the night before we left so we didn't have to finish packing by candlelight. We arose at 3 a.m. Three flights and 17 hours later we checked into our hotel in Honolulu's Waikiki neighborhood.
Boarding the ship was the low point of the whole trip. Celebrity really needs find a better way than to herd 2,100 people and all their bags into two glacial lines.
Cruising the western Pacific
You might think a 19-day cruise across the ocean could be a bit, well, boring. Or it could be extremely relaxing. With 11 days "at sea" (i.e. no ports to visit), there'd be plenty of time to chill out.
I was neither bored nor relaxed. Thanks to Cruise Director Rich and my irrational fear of missing out, those sea days flew by. While others worked on their tans by the pool, I played paddle tennis and volleyball, racked my brain with trivia challenges, joined the Celebrity Show Choir and learned -- then promptly forgot -- a variety of ballroom dances.
On some days I joined Nancy for lectures: Celebrity provided a scientist from the Smithsonian; TravelQuest booked several astronomers among its hundreds of eclipse passengers.
We often soaked in the indoor thalassotherapy pool -- sort of a giant saltwater hot tub -- then enjoyed the evening show in the ship's theater before dinner.
Early on we discovered a chamber trio, Beacon Street, that played mostly classical music twice each evening. They were an unexpected highlight of the cruise.
Did I mention the food? Celebrity is celebrated for its fine cuisine, although longtime customers complain the standards have slipped. Could've fooled me. Between the terrific buffets, sit-down dinners and impossible-to-pass homemade ice cream bar, I was constantly filling up.
I always thought Australia was west of Hawaii -- and it is -- but I was surprised we headed mostly south to reach New Zealand. Sometime during our fourth day out we crossed the equator. Late fall suddenly became late spring.
To honor the occasion, the ship held a traditional ceremony to indoctrinate first-time crossers (pollywogs) into veterans (shellbacks). I joined about two dozen volunteers who, under the direction of King Neptune, allowed the ship's staff to coat us with flour, eggs and Jell-O, and dunk us in the pool. Nancy preserved the goofy ritual in a blurry video.
Unlike a typical port-a-day Caribbean cruise, we made few stops along the way. I didn't mind. Those cruises tend to wear me out -- too much pressure to see everything, day after day.
Our first stop was Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. We'd been here before on a land trip, so didn't feel the need to take an excursion to, say Kilauea or Volcanoes National Park. They're both fantastic destinations. Instead we did laundry and checked email, since they're both ridiculously expensive on board.
A week later we sailed into our first "exotic" port -- Pago Pago, American Samoa. Like Fiji two days hence, I had only a vague notion of what Samoa might be like -- a tropical paradise, something from a Gauguin painting.
Nope. Think cargo containers, McDonald's, discount muumuus made in China. A century of occupation by the U.S. Navy removed most of the mystery.
On a drizzly day, we skipped taking one of the overpriced shore excursions that might have showed us a better side of the island. The idea of touring a "native" village with a couple dozen passengers didn't seem very appealing.
Setting out on foot, I found the charming Jean P. Haydon Museum a few steps away, where I learned a bit of the Samoan culture. A class of grade-schoolers smiled shyly at the American visitor; the bravest said hello and offered handshakes.
On our way to Fiji we lost a day crossing the International Date Line. We fell asleep Saturday night and woke up Monday morning. How weird is that? (We got it back a few weeks later flying back to Hawaii).
It rained in Suva, Fiji's capital, which isn't surprising as it gets more than 78 inches of rain a year. Fiji may have pristine beaches and tropical rain forests, but the port of Suva is a bustling city of 167,975, according to the fiji.gov website.
Here again we explored on foot. Guided tours, at $150 a pop, just didn't seem like the way to go. We also had to be back on ship by 12:45 p.m. to allow time to sail to the eclipse viewing site.
Wednesday morning, Nov. 14, was warm and clear, thank goodness. Nothing like a cloudy day to spoil an eclipse. I walked out on deck early, but rabid watchers had already claimed the prime viewing spots -- hours before the main event. I reserved a couple of chairs along the port rail and ducked inside for breakfast.
Watching an eclipse is a lesson in patience: The sun doesn't suddenly go dark; it takes more than hour from the time the moon first touches the edge of the sun (first contact) to full totality (second contact). During this time, people put on special glasses that protect their eyes to see the partial eclipse, or fiddle with their cameras making final preparations.
Although I'd seen and photographed eclipses before, I practiced my camera routine a day or two in advance. During the actual event, it's easy to get over-excited and confused and screw up your photos. Besides, I wanted to actually watch the eclipse, not fuss over my camera.
Experts recommend taking a series of different exposures, with varying shutter speeds, to capture prominences and the corona (sun's outer atmosphere, which can be seen only during a total eclipse).
Photographers also like to capture the "diamond ring" effect -- the moment at the beginning or end of the eclipse when the edge of the sun's ball emerges from the moon's shadow.