It was a great gotcha. If I immodestly say so myself. I wanted to surprise my wife with a reward for all she’d been through over a turbulent private and professional 18 months.
In the dedication to my new book, A Human Deadline -- a story of life, death, hope and house arrest, I acknowledged the fact that Chanel had been ‘thrust into public and private roles she never dreamed she would have to play’.
The present had to be a surprise and it is hard to keep anything from a woman who runs her own investigations company.
I’d arranged the Sydney treat months earlier, before my sudden sacking from 3AW. There was no nothing suspicious about the visit. Early December, we usually spend some time in Sydney and this year the calendar was suddenly full with interviews for my book, some appearances on Sunrise and talks with 7 management about my newly-announced role as Network National Public Affairs Commentator.
On the Saturday night we were dining at one of my favourite Sydney nosh houses: Café Sydney atop the old Customs House at Circular Quay.
Perfect location to tease the surprise. The towering Voyager of the Seas was lit up like a Christmas Tree at the Overseas Passenger Terminal and conversation drifted to previous cruises including a Sydney-Melbourne run on The World.
I had told Chanel that the surprise involved changing hotels for one night because of a ‘special, exclusive, degustation menu only available to guests at a certain five-star hotel’.
(Later she’d admit that the idea of a romantic dinner on a cruise liner crossed her mind but that was dashed when the Voyager suddenly eased away from her berth and majestically headed off past the Opera House and Fort Denison (which I still call Pinchgut).
Next morning we left the Stamford Circular Quay and I loudly gave the cabbie the address: ‘Park Hyatt at The Rocks please’.
A smug comment from the rear: ‘I figured it might be there’. We actually got right to the Hyatt before I instructed the driver that I’d changed my mind and directed him to the Overseas Passenger Terminal and a gleaming monster called the Celebrity Solstice. The 122,000-ton, 15-storey, 300+ metres long cruise ship.
Like 2800 other people we were booked for a mini-vacation – out through the Sydney Heads for one night at sea and a return at dawn next day.
It was a great 24 hours. I paid for my cabin (actually a port side stateroom with a separate living area and big balcony eleven decks up and overlooking the Opera House) but I’ll admit the people on Celebrity Solstice treated me like a celebrity and gave me VIP priority boarding.
That meant we were on board at 11.30a.m. in time for a healthy smorgasbord lunch in the massive Ocean Café before exploring the ship with its umpteen bars and restaurants and a real grass lawn on the top deck for a picnic or a game of bowls or bocce.
The Celebrity Solstice was only launched in 2008 so it is very modern. The biggest impact is the feeling of space. It starts with a ten-storey atrium, with banks of soaring silent glass elevators. There’s even a massive real tree suspended and growing in the centre.
They seem to have made this the core and then all the decks and bars and shops and restaurants feed away from there. Lots of little nooks with books for private time and a Vegas-size casino with real one-armed bandits, plus roulette, backgammon, blackjack and even Texas Hold’em poker tables.
(The casino came alive at 10pm when we were in international waters. The only currency is the American dollar. Not a bad little earner for the casino operator. You used your room card to buy Greenbacks and they placed a 5% transaction fee on top. All accounts on board are in US dollars so with the Aussie sitting around $1.04 you get a bit back.)
The ship will be based here for about six months. They’ve got some good 12 and 13-night cruises between Australia and New Zealand which may sound a bit naff but I’ve talked to people who’ve done that route on other cruise liners and they have loved it.
Must admit it appeals to me. It’s 50 years ago next February since I fled across the ditch and I must admit I have never been to Fiordland or seen Queenstown. A cruise under the South Island and back up to Akaroa (Lyttleton got blitzed in the earthquake that destroyed Christchurch) then on to Tauranga and Auckland, sounds good.
Celebrity Solstice would be a stylish way to do it. And Chanel liked the surprise.