Magnificent sounds and rolling seas on a cruise from Sydney to New Zealand
Telegraph.co.uk – 18 November 2019
If there was one thing I did learn while on a 16-day voyage from Australia to New Zealand, it was how much of a cruise novice I actually am: I did not plan ahead to procure preferred shore excursions or spa and restaurant times; the size of my suitcase was just a little too large to fit under the bed; I did not consider the unpredictable New Zealand weather (more of that later); and I certainly did not think about potential rough seas. In fact, I naively thought the three-day crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand would be like paddling over a pond. It was not.
And, as I lay on my bed gently rolling from side to side like a lone sausage in a frying pan, I did, rather dramatically, consider jumping ship. “Oh, this is nothing,” laughed my cabin stewardess as she brought me copious amounts of ginger ale, sugary ginger candy and anti-nausea drugs. “You should have seen what it was like coming from New Zealand a few days ago,” she said, giggling again, as she flung herself from one side of the room to the other in a bid to illustrate the wrath of the sea on the previous journey. She did then tell me conditions would improve and, although there wasn’t much to see from my stateroom window now, that I’d be suitably impressed once we got to New Zealand.
She was right. For on day eight, as I stood at the bow of Seabourn Encore as we silently sailed through the indigo waters at Milford Sound, the magnificent fjord within New Zealand’s Fjordland National Park on the country’s South Island, all I could think was: “This is totally worth the sea sickness.”
As the early morning sun began to emerge from the majestic cloud-piercing summits, forming rainbows on the mist created by the glorious waterfalls that curtained these muscular cliffs, a fellow guest on the ship, a benevolent Australian man with a belly that matched his gregarious laugh, who had sailed this route many times before, explained how unusual this was. “This is the wettest area of the country, so low-hanging clouds, more often than not, mar the visibility. But then, the climate in New Zealand,” he noted, shrugging his shoulders, “is a bit hit and miss like that.”
Something of a prophetic statement as, over the next week, unexpected weather conditions left us boat-bound twice; once because of an impenetrable fog that denied us access to the architectural delights of the city of Dunedin, and the other a downgraded cyclone that battered the coastline and produced stomach-churning swells, making it too risky to drop anchor at the pretty peninsula town of Kaikoura where, best known for its wildlife-spotting, we missed out on our whale-watching excursion.
This turn of events only emphasised why so many people kept telling me how important it is to pick a suitable cruise line. It seems then, that I had at least done one thing right by choosing Seabourn, not only for the reactive staff who sprang into action to arrange a full programme of activities for an unexpected “sea day”, but also for the quality of entertainment and the facilities – including a wonderful spa, fantastic public spaces and an array of dining options – that make you never want to leave.
My new friend Dianne – an American from Maryland – agreed: “I thought I had travelled on luxury cruise lines until I came aboard Seabourn. This ship is on another level; the intimacy, the service, the quality, but also being around like-minded people who know what it means to dress up for dinner, is refreshing.”
We were riding out the storm, perched at the semi-circular bar in the 11th-floor Observation Lounge, munching on caviar – naturally – and drinking in more than the hazy landscape views visible through surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is my first Seabourn experience; you get what you pay for, and it’s worth every cent,” she continued. Jerry, another American agreed, adding it was also a great way to relax following a hectic few days on land in Australia.
However, and in hindsight, experiencing New Zealand for the first time from a cruise ship – despite unexpected weather occurrences – was mildly frustrating. The more traditional way to tour a country celebrated for its epic landscapes and wild, natural beauty is by road. Which probably explains why many of the guests on board had specific reasons – from limited mobility to travelling as a solo female or having already done the land version before – for choosing this itinerary. The rest of us, after much discussion, felt we might have missed out.
That said, land tourists tend to explore only one island – the South being the preferred choice for its vast, uninhibited landscape and pretty sights such as the Moeraki Boulders or Purakaunui Waterfalls – so being able to experience the entire run of the country from the far southern settlement of Oban on sparsely populated Stewart Island of just 381 people to Auckland, all the way at the top end of the North Island, was a boon.
In between, the ports we could disembark at included the picturesque town of Picton; magnificent Marlborough Sounds; the earthquake-devastated Christchurch; Wellington, New Zealand’s very windy capital; and Rotorua, where the pervasive eggy whiff from the active geysers did not do much to calm a sea-sick stomach.
It has to be said that despite not being able to stop at each port, the highlight was almost certainly the sublime Milford Sound fjord; it felt almost as if we’d peaked too soon. Of course, as my cabin stewardess impassively pointed out, the ship basically runs as a shuttle between Sydney and Auckland and back again, so there was the opportunity to do this itinerary in reverse.
As for the shore excursions, the advice I got from a tiny but spiky 80-something woman from Florida, was to go independent. “My husband and I always pre-arrange private tours. We figure, if you’re going to pay for these tours, you may as well pay for something that’s tailored specifically to you,” she mock-whispered from behind her hand as we half-heartedly nibbled on mediocre buffet food in a dark hotel conference room, described in the shore-excursion pamphlet as “a barbecue lunch in a beautiful garden setting”.
Back on board – after being shepherded to a museum that promised to enrich us with the history of Rotorua in a beautiful heritage-listed building, but was in fact closed for renovation – it was clear that the day’s excursion was not quite reflective of the line’s luxury tag. Then again, it’s hard to judge from just one experience, and a British woman I got chatting to in the laundry room told me she has always enjoyed Seabourn’s excursions in the past and this voyage had been no different.
Excursions aside though, after a day out and about, there is nothing more cheering than to climb back on board with the anticipation of wining and dining the evening away in a great selection of restaurants, including chef Thomas Keller’s Grill and an intimate sushi nook, where authentic Japanese food is served using fresh ingredients straight from Japan.
And all before being lulled to sleep by the rocking of the ship, before throwing your curtains open the next morning in a brand-new destination. I wholeheartedly agree you get what you pay for and it was these moments that made me realise what cruising was really about.
A 16-day Australia and New Zealand itinerary on board Seabourn Encore departs Sydney for Auckland on February 23, 2021 and costs from £9,000pp sharing a Veranda suite. Flights extra (0344 338 8615; seabourn.com).