Ten years ago, my family took our first ever cruise to celebrate three milestones: my 38th wedding anniversary, 60th birthday and my youngest daughter’s 28th birthday. We chose Alaska via Vancouver (first time for all of us) and, on our return spent a week in Whistler, a skier’s destination, before returning home. Not sure now if we flew PAL or Cathay Pacific, but our cruise line was Royal Caribbean.
That’s the thing about cruises. What you pay for up front covers all your expenses on board — food, drinks, entertainment, sports facilities, spa, barber or beauty salon, library, theaters — except for the on-board casino, shopping outlets, specialty restaurants where you pay as you go and gratuities. Side trips at certain stops are also not free but worth your while with extra cash in your wallet.
We took the 7-day cruise. We said we should see the glaciers before those turn to ice cubes no thanks to climate change. We traveled in May for two reasons: first, our grandkids were on summer vacation; second, we took the voyage and booked our hotels based on off-season rates. The cold didn’t matter much since the temperatures wouldn’t change much in Alaska.
We saw a glacier cracking and falling into the sea; a multitude of sea life — orcas, seals, walruses, bald eagles and dolphins — as well as land-based wildlife like bears, elk and deer; a tour by a National Park Ranger; a pit stop at a mining town with people in period costumes. We also took a train ride through snow-capped mountains. Some of us toured a glacier.
In Whistler, our 5-star hotel was 1/5 of the cost during peak season. Our hotel in downtown Vancouver was also a bargain. We toured in two F-300 vans that had enough room for 15 of us plus our luggage. The men in the family took turns driving the vans, while the women shepherded our youngsters. We zip-lined, drove ATVs, visited friends and family in Vancouver and marveled at the breathtaking beauty of God’s creation.
Fast forward to May 2018. Next in our bucket list was New Zealand. Again another destination none of us ever saw. We were a larger family now — twenty went but 3 were left behind in Manila. This time we took PAL going there and back, and Air New Zealand for the local flights between North and South Island. Our first stop was Auckland, our second was Queenstown; both sites the locations for Lord of the Rings.
Like our first bucket list trip, we experienced spring weather (Vancouver/Auckland) where average temperatures were around 16 degrees Centigrade and the winter cold (Alaska/Queenstown) where it averaged between zero to 3 degrees C. The only distinction was the rain that kept falling in Auckland. Amazing how the weather could change, from wet to dry to wet, in minutes.
Auckland is a good hub for out-of-town trips to picturesque destinations like Rotorua, Hobbiton, and Waiheke Island. Our mistake was that we didn’t use Rotorua as the hub. Auckland is still growing but needs a good makeover. There are some nice spots but, over-all, it’s bland and the people in the hospitality business need better service-orientation. We felt at home whenever we bumped into fellow-Filipinos residing there.
Hobbiton was great for the kids. It was the movie set on a vast privately owned farm for the Hobbit, a spin-off of the globally acclaimed Lord of the Rings movie series. The 2-hour drive alone from Auckland was a treat as we went through quaint towns and feasted on lovely landscapes of rolling grassy fields with sheep and cattle grazing in large pens. The Glow Worm Cave was another wondrous treat for the kids.
The adults, on the other hand, enjoyed Waiheke Island that had vineyards and estates that served superb wine with outstanding cuisine while soaking in the lovely landscape and enjoying “Baguio weather.” The constant rain dampened our eagerness to explore the city on foot. When I had the chance I worked out my leg muscles on hilly streets which prepped me for Queenstown.
Queenstown was a two-hour flight from Auckland.
In both destinations, we booked apartment hotels with kitchenettes, but it was in Queenstown where we were motivated to prepare breakfast and cook dinner. My apartment there had a frontal view of the lake and the snow-capped mountains right outside our living room and bedroom windows. It had a fireplace that we kept gong to keep us warm.
Queenstown was straight out of a fairy tale book. Majestic vistas, quaint neighborhoods and friendly people blended to give Queenstown its well-deserved fame. We loved walking to the town center, a block away from our apartel. There was a wide variety of restaurants, boutiques, souvenir shops, grocery stores and pharmacies to choose from. My grandkids took to the “haka” very quickly.
Milford Sound is a 3-hour drive from Queenstown; and the Nicholas farm us a 45-minute ferry ride from the town’s jetty, a lazy 15-minute walk from our apartel. Milford thrilled the kids with dolphins that put on a show alongside our boat, and the many waterfalls we saw along the way. At the farm, we toured the vast estate that bred cattle, deer and sheep. The farmer’s lunch we ate was purely organic.
Just like on North Island, our out-of-town trips on South Island brought us to more of God’s country. We “oohhed” and “aahhed” as postcard perfect landscapes came into view. We rode superbly-maintained tour buses and our carefully selected pit stops gave the kids the chance to romp in the snow, take pictures and load-up on food and drinks.
Before our next overseas adventure, the family will keep visiting our domestic destinations. They’re in our bucket list too.
Here’s my advice: we, too, need a makeover. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make tourism our primary economic driver.
Our country can be the region’s top water sports, cruise, agri, eco, medical, food and entertainment destination. With the right mindset, skill sets and tool kits, we can do it.
Rafael M. Alunan served in the cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.