The princess diaries
Celebrating Kiwi culture ashore and at sea
Occasionally on a cruise ship, as couples glide between dining rooms and bars, pool and spa, they forget where they are. I’m reminded of this when I skip Emerald Princess’s elevators for the inter-deck staircase so I can ratchet up my steps tally for the day. Sharing the stairs is a formally attired husband and wife — he’s propelling her upwards by pushing at her bottom and they’re giggling like teenagers.
They’re forgiven. After all, Princess is the cruise line that famously formed the backdrop for the TV series The Love Boat, so romance should indeed be in the air. Perhaps they’re having a rum old time because they’ve been indulging in The Isaac, a cocktail Princess Cruises launched in time for Valentine’s Day 2015 to honour the show’s red-jacketed bartender. The potion includes pomegranate syrup, supposedly an aphrodisiac. To remind yourself how Isaac used to shake it, turn on the in-cabin television, which shows old episodes such as the one where identical blondes swap fiances, marry the new one then swap back again, and with no one the wiser.
Of course, it could also be the New Zealand effect. I mean, have you been to a friendlier country? That kind of stuff rubs off. Princess is bringing more of this warm New Zealand vibe into the passenger experience with its new Across the Ditch program of Kiwi-themed on-board experiences, such as cultural performances and more NZ wines on menus, and shore excursions.
Before chugging out of downtown Auckland, we catch the ferry to Waiheke Island to try one of these new excursions. Waiheke, if you haven’t been, is a mix of old and new New Zealand (some call it Waihippie, perhaps acknowledging its popular nude beach). Thousands of Aucklanders descend upon Waiheke on any given summer weekend to enjoy its vineyard culture, which includes wineries such as Mudbrick that boast gourmet fare and astonishing views back towards Auckland. Even wineries without water views are something special; in the middle of the island, you can loll about on oversized cushions on the lawns of Stonyridge or taste your way through the well-regarded reds of neighbouring Te Motu.
No surprises, then, that our experience at EcoZip Adventures starts with whooshing over netted syrah vines. A trio of dual zip lines, which become progressively longer and faster, until we’re matching the general Waiheke road speed limit of 50km/h, lead us to a patch of rare forest dating back hundreds of years. We hike underneath towering tree ferns and slow-growing nikau palms that look like upside-down brooms. Our instructor, Rene “Chook” Hawkins, shows off the regeneration efforts as he leads us back uphill. Despite starting with several nervous types in our group who have a fear of heights, everyone’s buzzing by the time the adventure ends.
Back in Auckland, I nip past the docked Emerald Princess to wharf’s end to check out Michael Parekowhai’s sculpture, The Lighthouse, which references social housing architecture while commenting on homelessness and skyrocketing Auckland real estate prices. Our ship is preparing to proceed down the east coast to our disembarkation port of Dunedin but not before some wit sails past, belting out The Love Boat theme at the top of his lungs.
The forecast, broadcast on my cabin’s TV, is for calm, rippled waters, which is just as well, as I forgot to pack seasickness tablets. I needn’t fear because New Zealand is turning it on as we cruise past Mount Maunganui where the shore is lined with waving people (“Kia ora, guys!”) into another real estate hot spot, Tauranga, where baches (beach shacks) have been replaced by multi-million-dollar mansions. From here, we drive to the living Maori village of Whakarewarewa on the outskirts of Rotorua, nicknamed Roto-Vegas for its proliferation of motels and neon. “What’s unique is we’re living on geothermal activity,” says our guide, Michael Johnston, as he stamps on the earth’s crust, letting the hollow thud do all the talking. He shows us where the 60 residents steam and boil food (you can buy a boiled corncob, with salt and butter, for a few dollars from a stand or save space for a hangi pie at the cafe). They also cool the mineral-rich waters to a comfortable bathing temperature although sometimes, Johnston says, tourists wander into the outdoor baths, keen to join in before they’re shooed away.
We port-hop to Gisborne, which makes much of the fact it’s the world’s first city to see the light of a New Year. A 10-minute drive north, past a whale graveyard, pump-
Emerald Princess in Akaroa, main; performer at the Maori village of Whakarewarewa, above