Miami Cruise Terminal, one of the largest cruise ship terminals in the world, is home port for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line company. This is where we headed to board our ship, Jewel of the Seas, which became our home away from home for 16 nights, along with 2500 fellow passengers, and 800 delightfully friendly crew members. The final destination for this cruise was San Diego but the highlight would undoubtedly be the passage through the amazing Panama Canal, famous as one of the world’s greatest feats of modern maritime engineering, allowing ease of passage between the northern and southern hemispheres. We bid farewell to Florida as we sailed past Miami’s famous South Beach, heading to our first destination, Cartagena, Colombia. The first part of the cruise was completely devoted to relaxation. As we had discovered on previous cruises it wasn’t hard to take full advantage of the indulgent leisure facilities on the ship.
Our recent visit to Florida coincided with the Beach Pride Festival celebrations in Fort Lauderdale and gave us the opportunity to travel to Miami to meet Francisca Phillips, Engagement Diversity & Inclusion Manager for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. We were also fortunate enough to meet members of her team, Carlos and Ingrid, who gave us some fantastic insights into their roles and program responsibilities within the company. They have a complex task to manage working in a company with over 70,000 employees from more than 120 different nationalities. As our interest was the LGBTI+ community we were able to have a more focused discussion about that specific area. The team enthusiastically outlined a wide range of strategies they knew were being employed by the company, both on land and at sea.
Our ship slowly inched its way into the Port of Muscat, a tableau of stark contrasts. Arid, parched mountains flanked ancient forts. Gleaming, white buildings produced brilliantine sparkles and multi-million dollar pleasure cruisers languished in the harbour. Beyond the sanctuary of the port gates eager taxi drivers proffered services at inflated prices. We ventured independently towards the small horseshoe harbour and within ten minutes had discovered the heart of the city, the Mutrah Souq. This traditional old Arab souq or bazaar attracts mainly international tourists but we were securely anchored in the Middle East by the evocative aromas of burning frankincense, sweet cinnamon and spicy cardamom. Turban clad store traders haggled gold, carpets, head scarves, colourful cloth and burnished souvenirs. Kohl-eyed and dressed in ‘thawb’ (full length, white, traditional Arab garb) they more resembled spirits than shopkeepers.
Our driver arrived to pick us up around 4.30am at the Jaypee Palace hotel in Agra. We were about to make the highly anticipated journey for sunrise at one of the most iconic buildings in the world. As we made the short drive through the deserted streets, the dark chill of the early morning mist hung drowsily over the city. Once the car was parked we were led down a dusty street, lined with early morning hawkers, to the main tourist gate of our destination. The Taj Mahal was described by the famous Indian artist Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of time”, and is one of the world’s greatest legacies, created by one lover as a memorial and eternal gift to another. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan constructed the magnificent white marble mausoleum to express his undying love to his second and favourite wife Mumtaz. The Taj Mahal is nothing less than the crown of India, lavishly created, extraordinarily unique, awe-striking, an irresistible beauty, luring millions of visitors every year, thousands daily.
When the stunning Ms Christy McNicol took to the stage at the Eltham Hotel on Saturday night to present her unique version of Heather Small’s iconic gay anthem, Proud, our collective goosebumps stood erect. Most of us attending the Tropical Fruit’s Party have celebrated at a few pride events over the years but this one definitely made us ‘step out of the ordinary’. Eltham is a short drive from Lismore, or a slightly longer drive from Byron Bay, depending on your persuasion. The local, family owned hotel has a quaint, country-pub appeal, a large, outdoor beer garden and a generous dancefloor. Usually the centre of the rural, neighbourhood social scene, on this Saturday evening it was inundated with gaiety. The staff couldn’t have made us feel more welcome and once the drinks were flowing and the music started, the night turned from winter chill to tropical toasty.
When our cruise ship docked in Auckland we still had five days of exploring to do before we headed to our next destination. What a fabulous playground we discovered in this beautiful, friendly corner of paradise. We stayed at the Langham Hotel which is a very comfortable 5 star hotel close to Karangahape Road, the heart of the friendly and lively gay scene in Auckland. Just a short walk down the road you will find the fabulous Caluzzi Bar and Cabaret and you need to put it on your ‘must do’ list. OK, so Picton is on the South Island but you can jump a ferry from Wellington and be there in about 2 hours. The waterfront of this stunning and extremely popular little town is a photographer’s delight. On the day we visited bagpipers played to welcome guests and the local restaurants and tourist offices were full.