Don't miss the boat

17:00, Apr 13 2014
MS Oosterdam
SHORE LEAVE: A perfect day in Noumea turns into a mad rush for Angie Kelly and her cabin-mate.

It turns out that when the boss of the boat says be back on board at 5.30pm sharp, it means on the very dot of 5.30pm.

After enjoying a nice buttery croque monsieur in one of the casually chic cafes lining Noumea's Lemon Bay, my fellow cruiser and I decided a swim was in order, confident there was plenty of time left ashore before the Oosterdam set course for Fiji.

A lovely walk along Anse Vata beach, dipping in and out of the lagoon all the way, took us to the Hotel Meridien, where she had enjoyed a holiday in the the '90s when it was a Club Med. "Let's go have a look at it," says she.

A nosey-around and a cocktail or two later, we realised we had dreadfully miscalculated how far we had wandered off-course and how long it would take to get back to the bus stop where the shuttle to the ship had now long gone.

The enormity of that miscalculation dawned with a thud.

"Vous parlez Anglais?" I asked, panic-stricken, as I knocked on the window of a little red Fiat in the car park of the hotel. "It's orright love, I'm Australian, what's the trouble?"


The trouble was we were in real danger of missing the boat - the huge blue-and-white boat that was leaving for Fiji very soon with all our clothes and belongings on board, back at the dock, at least 20 minutes away by car. If we had a car, that is.

The truth was, my travelling companion and I had overstayed in port. We'd misjudged our timing as we sunned and sipped and tried our schoolgirl French in Noumea's popular cafe strip.

With no time left to wait for a local bus let alone make it from the main city bus stop to the port, which was another bus ride away, we had to think of something creative.

"Hop in!" said our hero in the red car, a Qantas engineer who had just moved to New Caledonia with his family.

As he sped through the evening peak-hour traffic telling us his tale of looking for a house and finding schools for his children, it was hard to listen politely as we strained to hear the baritone boom of the MS Oosterdam's funnel signalling that we were stranded.

Mr Qantas tore around the last corner, and as the ship came into view, we threw our last Pacific francs on the passenger seat for his kindness, ducked around a boom gate and started running across the deserted dock.

Arms flailing and calling out "We're here!", we could see a group of four uniformed officers standing on a small gangplank holding photos of us, walkie-talkies crackling, poised to slam the little blue door between us and our luggage.

"We were just arranging your flights from here to Fiji," said an unamused officer. Phew.

The last two of 1916 passengers present and accounted for.

"It happens," the captain of the MS Oosterdam told us later when we were safely back on board, hearts still thumping.

"Quite often, really," he said. "If we can, we help people fly to the next port to rejoin the ship."

Thankfully, our remaining days on board the Holland America ship were less dramatic, with a highlight being an evening meal in the Italian Canaletto restaurant, specialising in a classic menu of pasta, soups and seafood, our adventures providing entertaining dinner conversation.

However, top honours go to our meal in the reservations-only Pinnacle Grill, where we enjoyed elegant and delicate dishes, including king salmon, seared duck breast and crab - well worth the extra charge of US$10 at lunch and US$20 at dinner.

Best day of all by far, however, came in the shape of a beach stop rather than a port day.

The tiny island of Lifou in the Loyalty Islands is wonderfully undeveloped, surely qualifying as one of the last cruise stops anywhere in the world with no tourist facilities and nothing to do but walk, drift and snorkel in the warm water of the south Pacific.

A gaggle of chatty local children speaking French told us they'd been given the day off school to perform a traditional greeting for passengers, running off into the thick tropical growth as soon as proceedings were over.

A simple market with shells and floral sarongs is a brief distraction, with the highlight paying for a passport stamp that provides very nice bragging rights.

Snorkel, read or doze - any way you look at it, the tiny islet provided a dramatic contrast to the boutiques, restaurants (and high drama) of our Noumea port day.

MS Oosterdam is popular with older cruisers - on our voyage we saw only a handful of small children on board - with its traditional decor and facilities appealing to those who enjoy quieter pursuits.

The very comfortable library and computer area drew lots of fans each day, thanks to its great range of contemporary and classic books, atlases, impressive digital photography displays and its coffee shop.

The ship is not geared for families looking for waterslides, noisy crowd-pleasing deck competitions or highly produced children's entertainment. There were no children in the kids' club both times I wandered by.

One of the most popular activities during our voyage, judging by the crowds gathered, were the cooking demonstrations held in the ship's Culinary Arts Centre, where well-known chefs are invited to lead the classes.

No doubt Holland America is hoping its newly signed consultant, chef Mark Best, from Sydney's two-hatted Marque, will eventually make an appearance here.

Oosterdam is a welcome addition to the increasing number of ships available to Aussie cruisers who are looking for good value for money.

When you factor in accommodation, the range of upmarket food, big theatre shows and daily program of activities, including a good range of fitness classes and spa facilities, around US$128 a day each, staying in an ocean-view room, adds up to an excellent-value holiday.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America.

AHOY! At 361.8 metres long, Allure of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship in the world - just 5mm longer than its sister, Oasis of the Seas.

WHAT 14-day Pacific Treasures on the MS Oosterdam.

WHERE Visiting Noumea, New Caledonia; Mare, New Caledonia; Mystery Island, Vanuatu; Easo, Lifou, New Caledonia; Lautoka, Fiji; Dravuni Island, Fiji; and Ile des Pins, New Caledonia.