Personal Journey: An adventure … and an epiphany

Jessica Connor at Meniscus Wines, a vineyard atop a mountain overlooking the harbor in Akaroa, New Zealand. “[O]n that day I found a part of my heart that I hadn’t known existed.”

I am way too young for a midlife crisis, so I decided on “quarter-life.”

I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, what I wanted to pursue, who I wanted to be six months down the road, much less six years. I had a good job with a good company. I was with a man I truly loved.

So … I signed up to work on a cruise ship.

What I realized was that I needed a real adventure.

I knew that cruise workers traveled the world, got to meet people from everywhere, and had the opportunity to basically live for free. Sometimes youthful naivete is not a bug but a feature.

Camera icon Jessica Connor
Because a mudslide affected Skagway, Alaska, the cruise ship on which Jessica Connor was working went to Icy Strait Point.

I was considered an independent contractor, and after doing an Alaska circuit on both Princess and Celebrity cruise liners, I found myself in Hawaii, snorkeling and swimming with dolphins at White Sand Magic Beach in Kailua-Kona and going to an all-inclusive luau on Maui.

From Hawaii, we traveled the “Tahitian Treasures” cruise to Sydney, Australia. The coolest part about this trip was getting to visit such French Polynesian islands as Bora Bora along the way. I remember waking up on that rainy embark day in Sydney and looking out my porthole window at the white tiles of the Opera House, bright through a blurry drizzle, all the while just being excited to see land for the first time in days.

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Sydney Opera House through the porthole window on the morning Jessica Connor saw land for the first time in days.

It was around this point that I didn’t think we could go anywhere more stunning than where we had already been.

And then we sailed to Akaroa, New Zealand.

The November morning that the Celebrity Solstice docked on that country’s South Island, I was still trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I groggily awoke to brilliant sunshine and looked out to see dark turquoise water against rolling shamrock-colored mountains, with hunter green dark patches.

How beautiful, I thought. And then, looking at the itinerary: Which town is this?

I eventually made it upstairs to one of the decks. This place was out of a landscape painting. As clouds drifted overhead, their shadows created darker areas along the curves of the mountains, hitting the shades of green at different angles. I was spellbound, feeling as though I had fallen into a dream. Because how could this place be real?

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The Celebrity Solstice cruise ship anchored in the harbor in Akaroa, New Zealand.

After the guests had disembarked into tender boats, my four-member team walked to the gangway down the I-95 – cruise ship vernacular for the main employee walkway – got our IDs scanned by security,  climbed into tender boats, and headed to shore. As our boat moseyed along, I saw our ship get tinier and the mountains somehow grow even more majestic. I caught myself looking around in wonder, with my mouth wide open. There’s no way a place could be this bright and breathtaking. I was going to wake up soon.

I wanted to stay longer in Akaroa than whatever this day would allow.

We walked the main road in town, through a section where all the shops had French names, past a front lawn of a coffee bar covered in flowers where a man played “Clocks” by Coldplay, as though he were a siren serenading us. We saw high schoolers playing Ultimate Frisbee against the backdrop of those picturesque mountains and a gentleman dressed up in a white-collared shirt and a black vest playing inspirational songs on an upright piano on wheels with a sign that read Pianomad.

Our boss wanted to take us to a vineyard on top of one of the large hills, owned by a kind older couple. The kicker was that we had to walk very steep roads — San Francisco steep, if not steeper — to get there. My roommate was hung over and sweating out last night’s toxins, my athletic boss was in the front leading the way, and everyone else was somewhere in the middle climbing (and panting) up the hill. Finally at Meniscus Wines, we walked onto the patio … stopped dead and just silently gazed.

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The view from Meniscus Wines, a vineyard atop a mountain overlooking the harbor in Akaroa, New Zealand.

Here I was thinking that the scenery from down below was surreal. But this — the long lines of varietal grapes overlooking the small town, the rising and falling sweep of the mountains, our ship resting in the bay, the puffy clouds calmly making their way across the sky — felt overwhelmingly hypnotic.

We feasted on platters of hummus and veggies and lox and bagels and drank pinot grigio, pinot noir, and riesling. I couldn’t help but continue to look out beyond the patio and wait for the vision to shatter, to show me that it wasn’t real. But it was, and as beautiful as when I first saw it that morning.

Right then, on that mountaintop, I felt something softly click into place.

This otherworldliness, on top of a mountain, on the opposite side of the globe from home — plus my adventure of living on cruise ships — pushed away that feeling of a quarter-life crisis in favor of a sudden, yet calming, inspiration to move forward. Yes it sounds cheesy, but on that day I found a part of my heart that I hadn’t known existed.

When we left, the kind woman who owned the winery drove us back down the mountain, gratis. We took a tender boat back to the ship, changed our clothes, and went back to work.

And I knew then that I could head home.

Jessica Connor, now 26, currently lives in New York and still hangs out with that fellow.

 Did a travel experience move you, change you, or give you great memories? Email us how, in about 500  words (include a photo, caption information, and daytime phone number): inquirer.travel@philly.com. Please put “Personal Journey” in the subject line.  (Response volume prohibits our returning or acknowledging every submission.)