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Five weeks for four minutes

Jim Balow
The setting sun paints an orange glow on the iconic roof of the Sydney Opera House, as seen from the deck of the cruise ship Celebrity Millennium as it pulled into dock in November following a 19-day cruise from Hawaii.
Jim Balow The November total solar eclipse in the South Pacific, where the moon blocked the sun and revealed the beautiful corona and red prominences.
Jim Balow Upper-deck photographers await the total eclipse beneath radar domes of the Celebrity Millennium, while others view the partial eclipse through protective glasses.
Jim Balow The pool deck of the Celebrity Millennium is a lonely place at dusk, when most passengers are dining or watching the early show in the theater.
Jim Balow The cruise route from Hawaii to Australia is as much south as west, with stops in American Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand. The detour after Fiji to meet the eclipse path is not shown.
Jim Balow Architectural styles clash in downtown Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Tower Eye (right center) is the city's tallest structure at 1,014 feet.
Jim Balow Visitors photograph a dugong -- a cousin of the manatee -- in one of the underwater tunnels at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.
Jim Balow Maori women swing their grass skirts in a performance at the Te Puia New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua.
Jim Balow Surfers and swimmers enjoy a typically perfect day off Waikiki beach in the shadow of Diamond Head, an extinct volcano, in Honolulu.
Jim Balow Sunset on the Celebrity Millennium near the equator, between Hawaii and American Samoa.
Jim Balow

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.

The ports

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.

Eclipse Day

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.

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 balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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