Maiden voy­ager

The joys of a new cruise ex­pe­ri­ence and a first visit to New Zealand

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HE­LEN MCKEN­ZIE

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.

BARRY HAR­COURT/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

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