A small boat, fol­low­ing the stun­ning Kiwi Coast, is a recipe for true lux­ury.

Western Living - - TRAVEL - Tim John­son

A wispy white cloud cloaks the moun­tains guard­ing the mouth of Mil­ford Sound— and that seems just about right. Stand­ing at the stern of the Se­abourn En­core with Tua Pittman, we look out over the chop on the Tas­man Sea, Pittman point­ing to peaks and points of in­ter­est lin­ing the lush green al­most mys­ti­cal South Is­land shore.

“For us, Mil­ford Sound is a sa­cred place, where the Maori came to gather the green stone. When­ever we come here, we pay homage to the spir­its,” says Pittman, the ship’s cul­tur­al­ist and tra­di­tional nav­i­ga­tor. As we steam slowly closer to the open­ing of the Sound, girded by the world’s tallest sea cliffs, we’re greeted with an un­ex­pected wel­com­ing party—a pod of about 100 play­ful dol­phins, emerg­ing from the blue-grey wa­ters to skim and leap and glee­fully ride the waves rolling off the back of the ship. Those lucky enough to be out on the decks clus­ter quickly at the rail­ings, hap­pily snap­ping pho­tos; mo­ments later, the play­ful crea­tures start to fall away and, as the En­core makes the big turn, we say farewell to these lit­tle friends, even as we pre­pare to greet the spir­its.

I’m sail­ing down the coast of New Zea­land—known to the Maori peo­ple as Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s a voy­age of dis­cov­ery, both cul­tural and nat­u­ral, as we trace a course along the coun­try’s eastern shores. Leav­ing from Auck­land, we call at all three of New Zea­land’s in­hab­ited is­lands—the North, South and Ste­wart.

Pittman notes that com­ing in from the wa­ter pro­vides a unique van­tage point. Be­cause the En­core is smaller than most cruise ships (the ves­sel car­ries just 600 guests and has a re­mark­ably shal­low draft, need­ing as lit­tle as a half me­tre of clear­ance be­low the bot­tom), it’s able to nav­i­gate into small bays and coves nec­es­sar­ily by­passed by big­ger ves­sels. And ap­proach­ing these is­lands from the sea—the trop­i­cal North, tem­per­ate South and tiny Ste­wart—we’re fol­low­ing in the wake of the land’s first res­i­dents, the Maori, who came here in wooden ca­noes, nav­i­gat­ing by the stars, and later Euro­pean ex­plor­ers like Abel Tas­man and James Cook.

At Tau­ranga, our first port of call out of Auck­land, I emerge early in the morn­ing onto the deck to watch our ap­proach, pass­ing the ver­dant flanks of Mount Maun­ganui and smelling that dis­tinctly trop­i­cal mix of salt and earth as we roll to­ward the jetty. This is a re­sort city that swells in size dur­ing the sum­mer, and my day tour quickly skirts the

22 kilo­me­tres of beaches—sand crowded with surfers and sun­bathers and beach vol­ley­ball play­ers—as we make our way to­ward Ro­torua. Ar­riv­ing at Te Puia, one of the coun­try’s best-known tourist at­trac­tions, a place where cul­ture meets na­ture, our small group of day trip­pers is greeted by Maori war­riors at Te Puia’s meet­ing house who sing songs and demon­strate tra­di­tional fight­ing tech­niques. Then we wan­der down into the Whakare­warewa Val­ley, mar­vel­ling at its geo­ther­mal won­ders, liq­uid hot magma sim­mer­ing near the sur­face of the earth. As we walk past bub­bling mud pools, our pa­tience at the Po­hutu is re­warded when the geyser erupts, frothy wa­ter shoot­ing as far as 30 me­tres in the air, blow­ing a fine mist over all of us snap­ping pho­tos.

Back on board, evenings pass hap­pily, sur­rounded by the rather in­dul­gent lux­ury of the En­core. It’s the new­est ship in Se­abourn’s fleet; even the reg­u­lar state­rooms ( known as “ve­randa suites”) fea­ture 300 square feet of space, enough room for a sep­a­rate sit­ting area, a walk-in closet, and a deep soaker tub in the bath­room, plus plenty of room on the bal­cony to re­lax and drink some good Kiwi chardon­nay. I find my­self opt­ing in­stead to wan­der down to the fifth deck to sip gin and ton­ics in one of the two hot tubs there, watch­ing the blue ocean roll away off the back. One day I de­cide to go all out, pro­ceed­ing on my own per­sonal “tub crawl”— sam­pling all six of the hot tubs on board.

Dur­ing a day at sea, I take it up a notch, wan­der­ing out of my state­room in my robe and go­ing up to the 12th deck to guz­zle a few Grey Goose mar­ti­nis in a ca­bana in The Re­treat, a sort of holy of holies on the lux­ury front—a pri­vate, even more lux­u­ri­ous oa­sis with pre­mium liquors and oth­er­wise un­avail­able dishes of­fered for an ex­tra fee. Later, I com­plete the in­dul­gence at the Grill by Thomas Keller, a clas­sic Amer­i­can steak­house con­ceived of by the founder of Napa’s fa­mous French Laun­dry, down­ing lob­ster ther­mi­dor and big rib-eyes and plenty of New Zea­land caber­net. But I also make time for a bit of ed­u­ca­tion along the way, tak­ing in lec­tures by Pittman and other mem­bers of the Ex­pe­di­tions team, which in­cludes naturalists, a ge­ol­o­gist and an or­nithol­o­gist, among oth­ers, there to help in­ter­pret the world through which we cruise.

Mak­ing our way down the east coast, we stop al­most daily, in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal of Welling­ton, as well as small vil­lages like Pic­ton, and Oban, on Ste­wart Is­land. At Akaroa, near Christchurch, I have a true Kiwi ex­pe­ri­ence. Part of a shore ex­cur­sion, our group of 30 or so rolls out on a mo­tor coach, out over the crater rim of an ex­tinct vol­cano, pro­ceed­ing through vivid green val­leys, mist and cloud shroud­ing farms and dairies and cheese fac­to­ries, the en­tire panorama look­ing like a scene from Lord of the Rings.

Re­turn­ing to shore, we’ll soon again be at sea. A few days later, I’m fi­nally in Mil­ford Sound. A glass of bub­bly in hand, I stand on the top deck, the sea cliffs climb­ing away on both sides, the sil­ver rib­bon of Stir­ling Falls tum­bling down nearby. As Tua Pittman told me, the spir­its are all around, here, be­yond the mist and be­low the long white cloud.—

Shore Leave If the iso­lated beauty of the Mil­ford Sound be­comes too much, you have stops at Welling­ton’s fan­tas­ti­cally quaint har­bour to give you a dose of civ­i­liza­tion.

The Cordis Ho­tel in Auck­land.

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