The joys of a new cruise experience and a first visit to New Zealand
SO many times, the first glimpse of a new country is an airport freeway viewed through a taxi window. My first sighting of New Zealand is from the balcony of my cabin as Sun Princess sidles up to the rugged cliffs of the South Island’s Fiordland.
I suppose I should imagine myself in the shoes of the intrepid seafaring explorers of the late 18th century; alternatively I could try to channel the Polynesians who approached Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, about 800 years ago. But I don’t. I luxuriate like a spoiled brat, sipping champagne and fresh orange juice and munching on croissants and smoked salmon for breakfast while taking in the extraordinary surrounds.
I am aboard Sun Princess for half of a 12-day cruise from Brisbane. It has taken us three full days at sea to get to Milford Sound. The journey so far has had its joys but it now feels like an extended drum roll for the real thing. We have the perfect day. It is still, calm, sunny and not too cold. There are wisps of cloud on the steep, vegetated hills and rocky peaks that sport occasional smatterings of snow. We follow an orange pilot boat into the secret passageway that Captain Cook twice sailed past.
Our j ourney is silent and smooth across dark green waters. I don’t quite understand how a vessel that contains the population of a country town (2900 passengers and crew) can slip almost noiselessly into this World Heritagelisted area. On cue a pod of bottlenose dolphins races alongside the ship and gulls dive.
Newzealand is beautiful. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said this to me before we sailed, and a dollar more for every time I have said it since returning.
This is my maiden cruise aboard a large ship. The first three days at sea are too chilly for poolside lounging so I try many of the services and activities, from a massage in the spa, bingo, gentle Pilates and laps of the promenade deck to talks on nutrition, weight loss and art history.
I am part of a team that mounts a strong attack on the trivia quizzes and we once come equal first, happily accepting what quiz master and cruise director Kelvin Joy describes as an ‘‘ordinary prize’’ of a hand-held fan.
Vaudeville is alive, well and irresistible in the Vista Lounge. Robert Pearson and George Harvey, two of the Four Kinsmen, sing Dean Martin songs ( Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime), dance a sweet soft shoe-shuffle a la Sammy Davis Jr ( Mr Bojangles) and tell jokes via puppets and raincoats. There is even a rendition of the Toreador from the opera Carmen using a whoopee cushion, and a singalong to That’s Amore.
Sun Princess has a plush 550-seat theatre where a troupe of 10 dancers and singers do their stuff with admirable aplomb, given the degree of difficulty created by a sometimes surging sea.
Cruising has many benefits that seasoned voyagers know only too well. Unpacking just once is a great bonus, as is not having to concern yourself with the issues of what’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Afternoon tea is not to be overlooked — and I would recommend wearing a hat and sunglasses in case you want anonymity when you summon the waiter for a second serving of scones, jam and cream.
There are delights, too, in sitting with strangers and swapping travel tales. The people-watching possibilities are endless. My favourite is when I happen upon a group who are ballroom dancing in the Wheelhouse Bar one afternoon. I am a sucker for this graceful art and love to watch people who know what they are doing on the dance floor.
About 6am on day five we glide into Port Chalmers for some landlubbing in Dunedin. The approach to the harbour is through a sand bar. We move like a slowly sweeping panoramic shot in a movie. The green hills are dotted with white spots that, of course, turn out to be sheep. I imagine I could even spy a transplanted Hamish Macbeth out walking with Wee Jock.
This early in the morning, the road that neatly defines the contours of the harbour is empty and as we get closer I can hear sheep bleating. For Dunedin locals who are up at this hour, we must look amazing, like a white mini- mountain almost noiselessly sneaking up on them.
Shore excursions are another convenient attraction for cruisers. In preparation for the trip we are given a variety of day touring options for each port. In Dunedin we could have signed up for the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway or a bus excursion to Larnach Castle, but we opt for a garden tour hosted by locals Mary and Pauline.
Boarding a minibus portside we journey northwards for about 40 minutes, with Mary and Pauline taking turns at the commentary, which includes local history (Scottish settlement, goldmining, whaling and sealing), fauna (there are no foxes, in fact nothing bad in New Zealand, apart from one species of spider) and the women’s love of the colourful roadside lupins that authorities are trying to eradicate.
At Waikouaiti, Gwen and Les Puller have brewed coffee and caramel slices waiting for us by a veranda framed by the most magnificent soft pink Cecile Brunner rose. Their garden is set on 1ha of rolling land and around the house are formal plantings, waves of colour, delphiniums, irises and roses.
Leading to the bay there is a summerhouse garden with ivory tulip and echium, followed by a woodland area of snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells and rhododendrons. On the water’s edge Gwen has planted bramble roses to keep the ducks out. It is a triumph of art and ability.
Once we are back on board Sun Princess, a lone piper at the dock bids us farewell with Amazing Grace, and there is the hope of albatross sightings as we head out.
Akaroa’s population is 700, so when Sun Princess passengers start arriving by tender boats the residents of this quiet, pretty village must take a deep breath. Many passengers hop on to a bus bound for Christchurch, an hour away. Others take the chance to swim with Hector’s dolphins, the world’s smallest.
We sign on for a town tour and are met by guide Beverley, who is dressed in colonial get-up of straw hat, long skirt and a shawl. Slowly we stroll around the town, listening to snippets of its French history and about Beverley’s frightening earthquake ordeal.
Afterwards we slip into The Little Bistro opposite the town park and make short work of a local tasting plate that includes smoked eel from nearby Lake Ellesmere. This delicacy, we are told, sustained the district’s early Maori inhabitants.
We take the tender back to Sea Princess for a final night at sea before disembarking in Wellington. As a first-timer in terms of both cruising and New Zealand, I now understand the lure of the high seas and the convenience and different perspective cruising offers the traveller to new lands. Helen Mckenzie was a guest of Princess Cruises.
Sun Princess, which carries 2900 passengers and crew, heads for the open sea after a visit to Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island
Sun Princess off the pretty village of Akaroa
A balcony stateroom on board the luxury vessel