Saturday, February 25, 2017

Australia & New Zealand Cruise on the Ovation of the Seas


This trip came together somewhat last minute when my mom suggested that we all meet up for Christmas and do a cruise around Australia and New Zealand. I did quick research and noted that the newest ship from Royal Caribbean, the Ovation of the Seas will be sailing this itinerary. At that point, there weren't a lot of available cabins left, so I quickly asked my sisters if they would all be coming. After I got everyone's confirmation, I booked our cabins for the cruise.

The cruise was a 15-night cruise, departing Sydney, with the following stops:
  • Sydney
  • Hobart, Tasmania
  • Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound
  • Dunedin, NZ
  • Wellington, NZ
  • Picton, NZ
  • Tauranga, NZ
  • Auckland, NZ
  • Sydney
Our family decided to disembark in Auckland instead going back to Sydney, so we would only be on the ship for 12 nights instead. I had to get special permission from Royal Caribbean, and we ended up having to still pay for the full 15 nights.

Ovation of the Seas

The ship is big; supposedly it's the biggest ship ever docked in New Zealand. There were around 4,500 passengers + 2,000 crew on board. There were 15 decks on the ship. We booked the cheapest balcony cabins, which had obstructed views. We were in the Forward section of the boat on deck 6, close to the elevators. The balcony was basically blocked by the tender boats, which was not bad, but the view was partially blocked by the boats.

The room size was not bad, and I liked that there was lots of storage, and we were able to store our suitcases underneath the bed. The rooms were serviced twice a day, which was nice. And every night, there were always animal towels left on our bed, along with the newsletter/activities list for the next day.

The bathroom included a small shower, toilet, and sink. It was designed pretty well for such a small space.

Food on the Ovation of the Seas

American Icon & Silk are located on deck 4, and was the location for the My Time Dining reservation. I highly recommend doing reservations, even if you are doing My Time, as there are limited tables for big parties such as us (we had 12 people total). The food was okay, and towards the end we got really bored of the food variety. Service in general was pretty good and the waiters were pretty helpful. We met a lot of Indonesian waiters working on the boat and had some interesting chats with them.

We bought the discounted food package while we were on board. It ended up being $115 for 5 specialty restaurants, which is actually better than paying for the upcharge individually. This package allowed us to try Jamie's Italian, Wonderland, Chops Grille, and Izumi. Since we had the package of 5, we ended up eating at Jamie's twice.

Jamie's Italian

This was probably our best meal on the ship. The up-charge for this restaurant option is $35 per person, but we got it as part of our dining package.

We ordered the meat plank, calamari, and garlic bread for appetizers. For the mains, there were plenty of pasta options; our favorite was the truffle tagliatele! It was seriously one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had in my life.


Wonderland is another specialty dining with a $50 up-charge per person. The menu was very interesting, we had to discover the secret menu by using "magic" water to paint over the menu. The restaurant design is very whimsical, even the waiters were wearing Alice in Wonderland type clothing.

Food was pretty good, but it's not really true molecular gastronomy like Alinea. Nevertheless, it was still a fun experience.


Port of Calls

Hobart, Tasmania

For each port, we booked a private tour with a local guide. This was actually, believe it or not, more economical than booking tours via the cruise ship. This was because we had 12 people in our group, so if you divide per person, doing private tour was actually not bad. The private tour ranges between 600-1200 AUD/NZD, depending on each location.

For Hobart, I booked with Island Time Tours. Rosie was the owner/guide, and she waited for us at the port. She had a slightly older, but comfortable bus with wool seating.

She took us to Bonorong Wildlife sanctuary and then to Richmond (convict town).

The Bonorong wildlife sancturary is like a zoo, but not. This is where they rehabilitate wild animals who are hurt. And if they can, they eventually release them back into the wild. We were able to get very close to kangaroos as there was a huge field with lots of them. They let us feed the kangaroos and pet them.


Afterwards we went to Richmond, which was a lovely little town where they still had a full structure jail. We went inside the women's jail and it was an interesting experience.

Afterwards, we went to the playground where the little ones played for a while!

Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound

Originally, we were supposed to visit 3 sounds:  Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound. However, due to the rough weather predictions, our stops to Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound were cancelled. We did spend a longer time in Milford Sound, but we were not allowed to get off the boat. So it was a bit disappointing, but we understood that it was for safety reasons.

Wellington, NZ

Our stop for Dunedin was also cancelled, which was a bummer, so we had an extra day at sea before our next stop at Wellington. By this time, we had been on board the cruise ship for 3 full days and were more than ready to get off the ship.

The weather in Wellington that day was not that nice (raining, cold, and windy!), but we were just glad to be able to dock on land. Our guide said that they had wonderful weather all throughout until we got there!

We booked with Silver Cloud Tours, and Helen and Mark were absolutely amazing! They had a Mercedez minibus for us as well as a smaller van. The vehicles were new and clean, and there were bottled waters and mints, which was a nice touch.

We did a little city tour, and then we stopped at the cable car museum and took the cable car down the hill and back up.

We had a lovely high tea at Roxy Cinema (included in the tour package), and it was yummy!

Helen also took us to a beautiful viewpoint where we took a family picture!

Picton, NZ

Picton is one of the premier wine countries in New Zealand. We booked our tour with Sounds Connection, and because we were docked in the commercial port, we had to take a shuttle bus to downtown to meet our tour guide.

Our tour started with a drive around downtown Picton (very, very small), followed by a drive through the Charlotte Sounds, which was beautiful!

We then went to Saint Clair Winery, which was so beautiful!  They had a table waiting for our wine tasting. Dan said the wines were good.

Our next stop was the Silverwood Sheep Farm. We were greeted by the owners who were very friendly. We got to feed the sheep and pet them for a little bit, and then relaxed at the art gallery. The entry fee was $20 NZD per person, but everyone had a great time!

We had lunch at the beautiful Brancott Estate. The views were just truly breathtaking! Food was really good as well.

Overall we loved our stop in Picton, and this was everyone's favorite destination.

Tauranga, NZ

Tauranga is famous for the Hobbiton movie set tour (from Lord of the Rings). We were debating whether to do it or not, and in the end decided not to. Looking back, I wished that we would have just done it, as it is the #1 tourist attraction in New Zealand!

We ended up doing a very local city tour where we went to a Kiwi Farm, an Avocado Farm, and then a Manouka Honey shop.

The Kiwi Farm experience was interesting, as the Kiwi looked like grapevines from afar. We tasted some kiwi fruit, kiwi juice, and candies.

The avocado farm was interesting, as we actually went to our driver's own avocado farm!

Overall this was probably my least favorite tour, but at least we still got to do something. :)

Auckland, NZ

Our last stop was Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand.  The funny thing is that even as the biggest city, it still felt small and quiet. It could also be because we came during the Christmas holiday, so a lot of places were closed and the downtown area was very, very quiet.

We disembarked in Auckland instead of Sydney, and had quite an interesting experience since we had to disembark with a tender boat. Our whole family had lots of luggage (with 3 kids under 3), so we were a little worried how we were going to be able to carry them to the tender boat and then carry them to the port. Thankfully it all worked out in the end!

We got pick up by our private tour and we dropped off our luggage at the Sofitel which is where we would be staying for one night. The Sofitel is a beautiful hotel, and location is pretty good (close to the Viaduct harbor and downtown).

We did the city tour, which was driving around the city and went to a couple view points. We were dropped back off around 3PM at our hotel.

  • This was our second time cruising as a big family group, and this time it was a bit harder because we had little kids. However, I still think that cruising is the way to go when you are planning a trip for a big family. It is so easy for the organizer since you don't have to worry about where to eat as the restaurants are all on board.
  • Private tours is definitely the way to go if you have a big group. It ended up being cheaper than if we had booked a big bus tour via the cruise ship!
  • If you are going to disembark earlier, make sure you get approval from the ship, but also check if you will need to use a tender ship, as that adds complexity. Also, the ship doesn't really assist you with the luggage if you are disembarking earlier, so if you have a lot of luggage but do not have enough help, maybe think twice about disembarking earlier. :)
  • Make sure to still bring a jacket (even though it's summer). The weather in New Zealand actually felt like winter most of the time, and my parents didn't bring jackets! So it's always good to at least bring one jacket.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Paris & Malta Trip


Dan had a two-week work trip to Malta, and I decided to tag along for the second half of his trip. Dan's parents were kind enough to watch M for the week. The plan was for me to fly into Paris, where Dan would meet me to spend the weekend, and then fly together to Malta.

The majority of the lodging was covered by Dan's work. We only had to find hotels for 2 nights in Paris and 3 nights in Malta.

I had always wanted to stay at the W in Paris, and they had cash & points availability for 10,000 points + 180 USD per night. For Malta, we were deciding between the Westin or the Le Meridien, but went with the Westin, which costs 12,000 points per night.

I was able to find last minute airline availability using miles, which was great, because otherwise plane tickets would have been too expensive.

W Paris Opera

We stayed for 2 nights at the W Paris Opera. I really wanted to try this hotel and loved the location. It literally is across the street from Galleries Lafayette. The Metro station is not too far away, and it is actually in the same general area as our hotel last time, the Park Hyatt Vendome.

We booked transport from the airport using intershuttle, for 55 euro one way. The pick up was prompt, and the vehicle was clean and big. I'm glad we did this option as opposed to finding taxi at the airport.  It was so much more convenient and less hassle.

The hotel allowed us to check in early around noon, which was nice. They also allowed us to do late checkout at 4 pm for our last night, which was great since we had a late night flight.

The check in area is really small and tight, and there isn't a lobby per se, but there is a seating area/cafe.

The room was a little tight and the shower setup was a little awkward. It made me feel like I was in a cruise ship shower. All the toiletries were the typical W toiletries, similar to the one in Bali. I wished the packaging was a little better, since at this price point, it looked a little cheap.

We didn't have breakfast included in the package, but it was close enough to Eric Kayser bakery where we grabbed some pastries.

Paris Food & Activities


I did a little bit of shopping in the morning, and then we went to Angelina for their famous hot chocolate. It's still as good as I remembered. :)

Dan got a praline eclair but he wasn't that impressed with it.

We then went to the storefront to get some gifts for M's preschool teacher.

Les Marais - La Droguerie Creperie

We walked around this area and found the La Droguerie creperie which is supposed to be famous. There was a small line when we started, but it grew to be quite long! We got the jambon frommage and the Nutella banana almond crepes.

We both preferred the jambon frommage, which had a crispy cheese crust.

We wanted to check out L'as du falafel for their famous falafel, which happens to be on the same street, but they were closed for Passover.

Le relais de l'entrecote

Le relais de l'entrecote is a very famous restaurant in Paris that only has one thing on the menu: steak frites (steak & fries).  During our last trip to Paris, we didn't get a chance to try this restaurant. So this time we wanted to make sure we did.

We went for dinner around 8 PM, and there was already a small line outside. We waited for around 30 minutes to get seated. The restaurant was full and lively, with the servers being all women dressed in French maid outfits.

Since there is only one thing on the menu, they only ask how you would like your steak cooked. I chose medium, and Dan chose medium well.

The meal included a small salad with walnuts, which was pretty good. It was tossed in a creamy horseradish sauce.

The steak and fries came with a generous green sauce. Dan really enjoyed his steak. They also provided a second serving. After that, we were both really full.

Afterwards we looked at the dessert menu, which surprisingly had a big selection! I thought it was funny that they had a full dessert menu but only 1 dinner menu!

Total for dinner (including a glass of wine) was 68. Each steak dish was around 21 euro, which we thought was pretty reasonable.

L'avant comptoir

This is probably our most favorite restaurant in Paris. We actually went twice during this trip (and once last time).

This restaurant is more like a bar, standing room only, with awesome wine selection and great small dishes to share. There are pictures of each dish (the menu) hung from the ceiling, and almost everything we tried was delicious!

Our favorite dish here is the foie gras burger. It's cooked just perfect (almost raw actually), and with the foie gras the burger tasted so indulgent.

We also liked their ham croquette and fish croquette. The croquettes were so creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside!

We tried the artichoke, beef sandwich, croque Monsieur croissant, pork sandwich, and they were all fantastic.

The other star dish is the bread and the bordier butter on the side. They serve a huge blob of butter to be shared. It is massive!! And probably the best butter ever!

Outside of the restaurant, they also sell crepes to go which was also excellent!

Musee D'Orsay

Since we were not able to go to Musee D'Orsay last time, this time we really wanted to make sure to check it out. There was a huge line when we came, and we probably waited around 30 minutes to purchase tickets and enter.

The Museum is not as big as the Louvre and much less overwhelming.


After 2 short nights in Paris, we flew to Malta. Dan had been there the full week prior for his first conference. We took Air Malta from Paris and went straight to our hotel.

Intercontinental Malta

For a few days while Dan was at his conference meetings, we stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. The location was pretty good, close to the hustle and bustle, as well as the beach. There were some shady areas close to the hotel, but I just try to walk passed it. :)

The hotel was a little bit older and outdated, but I think the location was very convenient.

Westin Malta

Once Dan finished his conference, we extended our stay for a few days at the Westin Malta. The Westin was actually not that far from the Intercontinental. The overall feel of the hotel was more like a "resort", and felt more upscale. The lobby was beautiful. We felt so "relaxed" as soon as we checked in. As a comparison, the Intercontinental felt more like a business hotel.

The room was also a little outdated, but we had a gorgeous view of the pool & ocean, and they upgraded us to a junior suite with Dan's SPG Gold status, which was nice.

Malta Food & Activities

Hammam Spa

While staying at the Intercontinental Malta, I decided to try the Hammam Spa at the Intercontinental.
for the traditional Hammam. My package included the following:
  • Traditional Turkish Hammam Body Exfoliating
  • Traditional turkish Hammam Full Body Foam Massage
  • Hair Shampooing
I wasn't really sure what to expect, but was excited to try something new. I was introduced to my therapist, who walked me into this big marble room that felt like a steam room (but very mild steam). She then took me to a separate area where there was a marble bed where asked me to lay down. 

The first step was exfoliation using this rough cloth. She then put soapy foam all over my body, and then did a little massage & shampoo, and then rinsed with warm water. It was a very interesting experience, as it felt like I was getting bathed by someone, which is not something I'm used to.

Hop on hop off bus

Dan already did the Hop on and off bus tour during his first week in Malta, so I went by myself one afternoon.

I got picked up at the Paranga beach club, which was around a 5 minutes walk from the Intercontinental. The bus comes every 30 minutes, so I didn't have to wait too long for it. The whole end-to-end trip took around 4 hours! This was probably the longest hop on/off bus tour I'd ever been on. And that's not including getting off; this was 4 hours of just sitting.

Paranga beach club

There was a beach club a short walk away from the Intercontinental. The ambiance reminded me of Mykonos, as you are sitting by the beach and the restaurant was decked in all white.  I had dinner by myself since Dan was working, so that wasn't fun. :p

Shopping Mall in Front of the Intercontinental

While Dan was busy working, I went to the "mall" a few times to get some items. The mall was very, very small, and they didn't have a great selection.  But it was nice to walk around to kill some time.

Downtown Valletta

We went to downtown Valetta, which is the biggest city in Malta. It is very beautiful, lots of narrow streets and old buildings. There is a nice view right by the garden & cannons overlooking Malta.

We saw a lot of tourist crowds from cruise ships during the day, and at night the whole city was almost empty once the cruise ships left!


Mdina is the "old town" , and the previous capital before Valetta. The taxi ride cost around 25 euros each way from our hotel. Mdina is much smaller and quieter compared to Valetta. We had lunch at a restaurant with great views overlooking the island.

Marssaxklox market

This is the main fish market in Malta. On Sundays, they also have other items besides fish where the locals would come and shop (for household items).

Blue grotto

Blue Grotto is one of the main tourist attractions in Malta. We took this small boat that fit 4-6 people, and the guide took us into a couple grottos, where the water was crystal clear and super blue! It was a little scary as there was a little bit of wind, but overall a great experience.



Overall it was a great, quick, trip to Paris & Malta. We didn't take M with us this time, and it was a lot harder than we thought. We found ourselves talking about her all the time, and perhaps this was a little too long for us to be without her. :)

Malta is a nice destination, although I think one week for me (and 2 weeks for Dan) was perhaps a bit too long. You can probably see a lot of the things we did in a few days, so I wouldn't recommend staying for more than a few days.

I would have to stay that the people in Malta are very nice, and I felt safe. Almost everyone we met spoke English which was helpful.