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Sailing the South Pacific

We were so overwhelmed by people being concerned for our safe return from holiday this March that we decided we ought to let you know the story. It isn’t a short one, and I have omitted many twists and turns.

We booked the holiday of a lifetime nearly 2 years ago – a 34-day cruise on the South Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to San Diego. Imagine all those beautiful islands you have seen in the brochures – blue seas, white sands, coral and colourful fish. Well, those images are still in my imagination!

It all started in New Zealand on March 1st when we joined the Holland America Maasdam cruise ship for the South Pacific crossing voyage including ports Waitangi; Fiji (Suva, Savusavu, Dravuni); Tonga (Nuku, Vava u); Cross International dateline; Cook Island Rarotonga; French Polynesia (Moorea, Papeete, Maroe Bay, Bora Bora); Crossing the Equator; Kiritimati Christmas Island; Hawaii (Lahaina, Hilo, Kona, Honolulu, Nawiliwili) and ending in San Diego on the 3rd April where we planned to stay a few days and then fly home.

We said goodbye to a warm and sunny Auckland. Next morning, we arrived at Waitangi, Bay of islands where we had a great day sightseeing. The next two days were at sea before we reached Fiji. The Fijians were lovely people, and very welcoming, and Dravuni gave us an insight into what we were to expect – Then along came Coronavirus. The Captain announced that the King of Tonga had closed the ports to all cruise ships, the first of many changes to come. So, 4 days later, bypassing Tonga in the distance, we arrived one day early at Cook Island Rarotonga. Fortunately the swell was just about suitable for us to tender to the island, as there were doubts at one point. Rarotonga was lovely and our first point of call was to go and buy WiFi!!!! We had been out of contact for 4 days and no-one knew where we were. Family and friends were ringing each other to find out any information on our whereabouts.

We got back on board to be told that all ports were closing and we weren’t allowed to go into any of the Polynesian Islands. This was a bit of a problem as we had many Polynesians on board, others were leaving the cruise at Papeete to fly back to New Zealand or Australia; entertainers and marine biologists were changing over, as were crew members, as well as taking on more stock and fuel. So, off we set, not knowing where we were heading for next – seems the Captain didn’t either. You can imagine our surprise the next morning when we looked out of the window and there was Cook Island again! The Captain, who was on his final sailing after 40 years, said he had never had to turn a ship around before. He had been sailing round the island that night, and we were told that anyone who was due to disembark at Papeete could disembark at Cook Island, but they had to have a flight organised otherwise they could not leave. They had two days to do it in, because that night we sailed around the island again to arrive back again the next morning! Apparently, the port had closed down just as we had left 2 days before, so no-one was allowed off unless they had a flight home. If you couldn’t get a flight then you were going to stay on until Hawaii, 6 days away.

So onward to Hawaii, where we were told we could stay 2 nights in Hilo, 2 nights in Honolulu and 2 nights in Lahaina – so that would be fine as we had trips booked on those islands- the most important of which was Martin’s life-long dream to go to Pearl Harbour.

Wind the clocks forward (well we did cross the International Dateline, and the Equator) and we discovered we couldn’t actually go to those islands after all, but we had to head for Hilo where we must disembark and fly home. As luck would have it, we couldn’t manage to book a flight, as the next day we discovered the protesters were out in Hilo and they didn’t want us in. So, off we head to Honolulu, where we were assured we would disembark, the ship would refuel and restock for the crew.  So, flights were definitely booked this time. Immigration was all set up and we were given our instructions. Nothing happened, and we waited, and waited. By now we were used to the Captain coming over the ship’s system with that little sigh that meant all was not well. The Governor of Honolulu did not want us in, even though we would get on a bus and get taken straight to the airport. Negotiations went on, and it was even escalated to the White House, but the Hawaiians did not want us off the ship onto their island. There were 6 Hawaiians on board and they were sneaked off without being seen. Well, there were 450 Americans, and they couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to disembark as they were on home territory.

So, on we sailed for another 6 days to San Diego, with assurances we would be allowed to disembark (as long as we had flights). We were safe, no viruses, hadn’t been on land for 17 days, had food, drink, a social life and toilet rolls!!! We could go to the gym, the spa, the library, the cinema, the theatre, and even the hairdresser! Why would we want to get off and into the big wide world out there? It was at this point that our family back home were getting very anxious. The USA had closed its borders, Canada had closed its borders, Europe was closing down. How were we going to get back home, where were we going to end up, would we have to quarantine in USA? So many stories going around. Our daughters lobbied the foreign office, the British Consulate in San Diego and the government, including local MPs, but we were told we were low on their priority list. The Canadians (250 of them) the Dutch and other Europeans had letters from their governments to reassure them that they knew where they were. The Canadian government even arranged for a flight to change its schedule so all the Canadians could get home. We booked a flight for the Saturday, (we were 8 days early so lost our home flight as well), it was cancelled and rescheduled to the Sunday. It was cancelled and rescheduled to a later flight. Finally, we got a flight from San Diego to JFK (not ideal but no choice) and then on to Heathrow (no flights to Manchester). There were 11 of us on the plane to JFK! But the flight from JFK was an amalgamation of 3 cancelled flights, so was pretty full, and was in fact the last Virgin flight out of JFK to Heathrow. Fortunately, Claire, our daughter, had been able to organise a hire car for us to get home – more added stress, I am sure!

So, we arrived into this strange world of ‘Lockdown’, and as a result of transiting through New York we had to self-isolate for 14 days on our return.

It was only when we got home that we understood people’s concern. Time was running out for safe exit from USA, flights were terminating, the virus was spreading fast. It was so nice to be welcomed home by everyone we spoke to, at a distance, or on the phone. Our family (including my Mum) have told us they won’t let us out of the country again!!!

Now, about that holiday to New Zealand we were talking about doing in 2 years’ time, will they let us go, or shall we just sneak out without telling them?

Martin and Carole Elliott