Thanks to my preparations, I was able to snag a couple dozen photos with by tripod-mounted camera, while keeping my eyes on the eclipse. They won't win any awards, but I'm happy to have them.
On to Sydney
After the eclipse, the rest of the cruise was a bit anticlimactic -- three more sea days, three days in New Zealand and arrival in Sydney.
New Zealand was pretty interesting, at least the little bit we saw of it.
"Lord of the Rings" fans know most of the luscious backdrop for the movie trilogy, and the new "Hobbit" trilogy, were filmed here. Several of the ship's shore excursions offered trips to Hobbiton, the rebuilt home of Bilbo and Sam.
But most of "LOTR," including the spectacular battle scenes, was filmed on the mountainous South Island, so we opted for a bus tour to the interior of the North Island.
I've mentioned this tour to a couple of friends since returning and both said, "Oh, Rotorua?" Yup. Rotorua is a bit of a Kiwi tourist trap, but in a good way.
The ancestral home of the Maoris, the Rotorua area is marked by geothermal activity that spawns hot springs, bubbling mud and spewing geysers.
Auckland, New Zealand's capital and largest city (1.4 million population), is a delightful mix of Victorian England and modern culture.
You can BASE jump off the 1,076-foot Sky Tower, the country's tallest manmade structure, admire the scenery from the Sky Lounge or revolving restaurant. Or you can stroll through Victoria Park or Albert Park, just blocks away, for a more grounded experience.
You can charter a yacht or go whale watching from the harbor, but after two weeks at sea, who wants another boat ride?
Two days later, passengers and crew members alike crammed the rails, cameras in hand, as the Millennium approached the Australian coast. Waves crashed on the sheer cliffs on both sides of the entrance to Sydney Harbor, and soon the iconic roof of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge came into view. I can't imagine a more glorious way to enter Australia.
Land, at last
As wonderful as the cruise was -- and it was, no question -- to me our week in Sydney was the highlight of our trip. Trust me, if you ever get a chance, go to Sydney.
There's more than enough to keep you busy for a week -- the botanical garden, the aquarium, museums on seemingly every corner, world-class beaches, fine dining. And don't forget the Opera House. We bought ballet tickets months in advance.
A super public transportation system ties everything together. We bought weekly tickets -- about $43 each -- that gave us unlimited access to buses, trains and ferries. I don't think we waited more than 10 minutes to catch a ride. Once you figure out the system, you can go practically anywhere.
One day we rode a fast ferry to Watson's Bay, a popular getaway near the mouth of the harbor where you can munch on fresh fish while admiring the sailboats. Or you can scale the ridge, hike along the oceanfront cliffs and watch waves wash up far below.
Another ferry took us to Manly Beach -- maybe not as well known as Bondi (we went there too), but equally popular among Aussies.
We were warned Darling Harbour was a tourist trap, but the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium was well worth the hefty entrance fee. You can walk through underwater tunnels and watch huge sharks and dugongs -- cousins of the manatee -- swim over your head.
Each night we bused out to our B&B in the Kings Cross suburb, a few miles southeast of city center. When we mentioned the neighborhood to some Aussies on the cruise, they seemed horrified by our choice. They said they'd never go there at night.
Yes, the area has a bad rep. Close to the Navy shipyard, it's home to Sydney's red light district. There were nasty gang fights there -- 80 years ago. You can find scary reviews at TripAdvisor. But we found it delightful, filled with tasty restaurants, lovely homes and lively nightspots. If you can survive Slack Plaza, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you'll make it in Kings Cross.
A short walk away on a side street we found the tiny SBW Stables Theatre, where the Griffin Theatre Company specializes in newly written plays. Cate Blanchett supposedly learned the ropes here.
We fretted about understanding the actors' Down Under accents but -- surprise! -- the play was about a Hollywood director trying to save his career.
You can't visit Sydney without a trip to the Opera House. But you can't get inside without buying a guided tour or a performance ticket. Either way, don't miss it.
It's hard to believe the place will celebrate its 40th birthday in October, and was designed in 1957. It's still amazing to see, from land or water, inside or out, day or night -- especially at night, when its roof is bathed in an eerie blue light.
Back to Hawaii
We bought one-way tickets from Sydney to Honolulu. I can highly recommend Hawaiian Air, which still treats you like a human being. Meals, legal beverages, movies, blankets and pillows all come with the ticket price. By taking the redeye flight and re-crossing the International Date Line, we left late Thursday night and arrived Thursday morning. That's fast!
To be honest, Oahu would be my last choice to visit among the islands of Hawaii. Honolulu, with nearly a million people, has been compared -- not favorably -- with Los Angeles. Interstate-like highways, rush-hour traffic jams. Even in Waikiki, where nearly all visitors stay, high-rise hotels block access to the legendary beach.
And yet ...
It's still Hawaii. Palm trees. Sandy beaches. Mai tais. Year-round summer.
We found Ilima Hotel along the Ala Wai Canal, a couple blocks from the beach. It has all suites and efficiency apartments with free parking -- rare for Waikiki -- at reasonable rates.
With our rental car we were able to explore the island.
The North Shore, the big-wave capital of Hawaii, is a pleasant 90-minute drive away. Every November and December it hosts the Triple Crown of Surfing at three sites along the coast -- Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline.
By pure luck the waves were up on the day we visited, which meant competition was on at Sunset Beach. You just drive up, find a place to park free beside the road, walk in with your blanket and cooler, plop down on the beach and enjoy.
By North Shore standards -- waves can reach 50 feet -- the 10-foot swells were pretty tame. Yet it's pretty awesome to see waves towering over the surfers' heads.
After a few hours we drove up the Waimea Valley to the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Here you can get out of the sun and stroll among a collection of tropical plants. Keep your eyes peeled for the exotic birds, often betrayed by their calls.
Other Hilo highlights include the Nu'Uanu Lookout up the Pali Highway, the drive (and views) around the southeastern "windward" coast of the island and the Punchbowl -- officially the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. This oddly moving attraction is the final resting place of thousands of World War II soldiers, including hundreds of mostly nameless victims of Pearl Harbor. Built in the crater of an extinct volcano, it offers a bird's-eye view of the Honolulu skyline.
We never made it to Pearl Harbor itself. Nor did we snorkel in Hanaumu Bay, another volcanic crater we planned to visit.
I suppose we have an excuse to return to Oahu. Let's see, when's the next Pacific eclipse?
Reach Jim Balow at ba...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.