Cruising on a big ship like Holland America Line’s 1,900-passenger Noordam can be a relaxing, time-efficient and surprisingly affordable way to explore coastal New Zealand, as VERNE MAREE discovered on a 14-night voyage that started in Auckland, ended in Sydney, and called in at Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Picton, Akaroa, Dunedin, Milford Sound, Hobart and Melbourne.
Driving is such a wonderful way to explore New Zealand that the option of doing it on a cruise ship might not occur to you. Also, it might not be ideal for your first trip to this visually stunning country.
But Roy and I had already explored picturesque South Island by car, seen unmissable destinations like Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu and Wanaka on Lake Wanaka, taken a helicopter ride to land on Fox Glacier, and travelled the magnificent TranzAlpine Express from Christchurch to Greymouth and back.
Cruising is just so much easier than driving. For one thing, no precious holiday time is lost in setting up and breaking camp, or unpacking and repacking in a series of less-than-wonderful motel rooms. Every morning – unless it’s a day at sea, and this cruise had five of those – you wake up in a new and different port with a tempting array of sightseeing options to choose from. For another, the ship’s captain is the only designated driver, so you as passengers can relax and enjoy the party.
I will admit that it took us a day or two to settle down to life on board. But once we’d made friends with barman Ernie at the Pinnacle Bar, sorted out our regular table in the main Vista dining room – and especially once the staff there had taken on board my husband’s unusually intense desire for hot plates – it was smooth sailing the rest of the way.
You can pay a premium for a fine dining meal at The Pinnacle (US$35 per head), or Italian fare at Canaletto ($15), but we didn’t bother on this cruise. We were generally satisfied with the Vista’s good choice of starters, soups, salads, and what the Americans call “entrées” and the rest of us call main courses, plus desserts.
It’s not all haute cuisine, but it often came close. I enjoyed a dish of steamed crab with snow-peas and garlic butter on fragrant rice, an authentic yellow dahl soup, a super-sticky pot roast of beef, and a tender lamb loin en croute. And it comes with all the trappings: a properly set table, a basket of great bread and butter, plus friendly, accomplished waiter service.
For breakfast, lunch, or in-between, there’s the buffetstyle Lido Café, offering everything from super-fresh salad ingredients, sandwiches and soups to various Asian fare, roasts, pizzas and pastas, and – out by the pool, burgers, hotdogs and a Tex-Mex counter with an endless supply of the best guacamole ever. Don’t expect much in the way of table service here, though.
Accommodation and More
Our nicely furnished Deck 10 Verandah Stateroom was a bit smaller than we’d hoped it would be; and though the sofa apparently converts to a child’s bed, I wouldn’t recommend that option. We hardly used our verandah this time, it must be said. It was misty and rainy a lot of the time and even in supposedly summery February it was downright chilly.
There’s a covered swimming pool on the Lido Deck and an open-air one at the aft end, both with bubbling hot-tubs that I loved. You’re not supposed to run on either of the Noordam’s two promenade decks. Instead, I hit the fitness centre every couple of days and enjoyed awesome sea views from my treadmill.
On a big ship like this there tends to be plenty of entertainment, including the usual song-and-dance shows, comedians, cooking demonstrations and more. For me, the highlight was the fabulous BB Kings band, which played three sets most nights.
Drinks, mainly. For those who plan on drinking a lot, taking the full beverage package might be worth it, but we found some of the restrictions a bit irksome so we gave it a miss. That turned out to be a good decision: in the end, we spent only about half of what the package would have cost us (US$100 a day), without stinting ourselves at all.
The Noordam has no self-service laundry facilities, which initially surprised us. Then we discovered a $95 laundry package that allowed unlimited laundry and ironing, for both of us and for the entire two-week cruise. Now that’s a bargain!
IMPRESSIONS: Situated on the enormous and beautifully calm Bay of Plenty, this is a much larger city than we’d expected, with a huge and busy port. A $10 shuttle bus runs between the cruise berth, located in the lovely Mount Maunganui area, across the bridge to the main centre. Plenty of South Africans live here in Tauranga; you hear the accents everywhere.
BEST THING: Letting my Englishman retreat to the coolness of the ship – it was a hot, sunny day – I headed for Mount Maunganui. This historic reserve is part of Mauao, owned by Maori and managed by the Tauranga City Council. Its 3.4km base track is a lovely walk.
That’s all I meant to do, but then I spotted a sign for the summit and had to give it a go. Of several tracks to the summit, 232m high, two are recommended for sightseers – the Oruahine and Waikorire, each taking about 40 minutes to get to the top. As you can see, it was well worth it for the views. Even better, I made it back to the Noordam before they raised the gangway.
IMPRESSIONS: After the 1931 earthquake that claimed 256 lives and laid waste to Napier, the city centre was rebuilt entirely in accordance with Art Deco design and construction principles. This new architecture was not only relatively cheap: an important consideration during the Depression, but technologically innovative – and earthquake-resistant!
Luckily for us, our visit coincided with Art Deco Week, held during the third week of February each year. Townsfolk dressed up in outfits evoking the 20s and 30s – some exquisitely elaborate – were out shopping, having tea at a café or sipping bubbly on the verandah of the Masonic Hotel (where HM the Queen stayed during her first Coronation tour, we’re informed). Napier has an unusual number of vintage cars – something to do with the climate and the salt-free air, but surely also with the citizens’ interest in their own history.
BEST THING: The Hawkes Bay Express, a 90-minute tour of the city and environs in a charming three-carriage vehicle that has the feeling of a tram or train. In his witty, humorous and informative commentary, owner, driver and guide Will proudly tells you that he, his wife (the conductor) and his dad designed and built the contraption.
IMPRESSIONS: Lonely Planet called Wellington “the coolest little capital in the world” – on the day of our visit it was very possibly the wettest. This is also one of the windiest cities in the world; when the wind’s up, the rain comes horizontally.
BEST THING: On our 3.5-hour Wellington Sights bus tour, our 70-something (at least) guide and driver skilfully manoeuvred his coach up and down some of the steepest, twistiest streets this side of San Francisco. Attractions covered included a cable car ride from Lambton Quay in the city centre up to Kelburn, the Lady Norwood Rose Garden (outdoors) and the indoor begonia garden in the Botanic Gardens, and we especially liked the Old St Paul’s Church (1866), built in Colonial Gothic style entirely of native wood.
IMPRESSIONS: “The people of Picton will welcome you,” cruise director Jan Basson had said over the PA, and he was right. As you come off the gangway, local ladies present you with a little corsage of wild flowers.
BEST THINGS: Visiting the whaling museum – a collection of more than 2,000 items of “Maori, whaling, maritime, heritage and textile displays” (pictonmuseumnewzealand.com) that starts with Maori legend and history, moves on to Captain Cook and then an interesting section on the whaling industry. You’re in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds here, and sailing out of Picton, back through Queen Charlotte Sound – the way we’d come from Wellington – revealed gorgeous views when the low cloud lifted.
#5. AKAROA (CHRISTCHURCH)
IMPRESSIONS: Since its devastating 2011 earthquake, Christchurch harbour hasn’t been able to welcome cruise ships – hence our stop Akaroa, located in the shelter of an extinct volcano about a 90-minute drive from South Island’s largest city. Too big for the small fishing harbour, the Noordam dropped anchor across French Bay, and we all went ashore by ship’s tender.
“I feel sorry for the French,” as the song goes; in this context, I feel sorry for the party of would-be French colonisers arriving in Arakoa Bay around 1840 with the intention of making New Zealand their own, only to see the English flag already flying – the Treaty of Waitangi was already a fait accompli. How disappointing. Happily, they were allowed to stay.
Well-preserved little wooden colonial buildings bearing names such as L’Hôtel (the first one, no doubt), L’Escargot Rouge, Ma Maison restaurant (but there’s probably one of those in Bognor Regis, too) and Ça Bouge boutique, located on streets with named like Rue Lavaud or Rue Balgeurie. I especially liked the Langlois-Eteveneaux Cottage & Akaroa Museum.
IMPRESSIONS: As much as Akaroa was a small town influenced by the French, so is Dunedin as close to a Scottish city as you’ll find this side of Edinburgh. (Dunedin, in fact, is the Celtic name for Edinburgh.) Graced with solid Victorian buildings, this thriving university city attracts 25,000 students a year.
BEST THINGS: Spotting a few of Dunedin’s famous outdoor murals from the Hop On, Hop Off bus, and hopping off to photograph them; a spot of shopping in the George Street malls; a 20-minute organ concert at St Paul’s Cathedral; and the magnificent old Railway Station, said to be the most-photographed building in NZ.
#7. FIORDLAND PARK (MILFORD SOUND)
IMPRESSIONS: Wet, windy weather with high swells made it impossible for us to enter the first two sounds on the agenda – Dusky and Doubtful; but we did make it into the majestic Milford Sound.
BEST THING: The captain turning this huge vessel 360 degrees so that all the passengers lining the railings would have an equal chance to view one of the waterfalls that the Sound is famous for.
#8. HOBART, TASMANIA
IMPRESSIONS: Described as “sandwiched between the Derwent River and Mount Wellington”, Hobart actively welcomes cruise passengers, and the docking point is perfect for walking to Salamanca Place.
BEST THINGS: Our four-hour Scenic Hobart and Wine Tasting tour took us first to Moorilla Estate, where a generous tasting session at 10am, directly into our empty stomachs, ensured immediate jollity. From there it was up to Mount Wellington for some stunning views. Back down on Salamanca Place, we browsed the artsy alleys before seeking out the oldest hotel in Australia and its pub, the Hope and Anchor .
From Hobart, it’s a day at sea to Melbourne, and another to Sydney – magnificent places and well worth exploring. (We took the opportunity to hook up with friends in both cities.) How much you enjoy those days at sea, however, will depend on how good a sailor you are; but rest assured that the Noordam has plenty to keep you busy.
A word of advice: consider carefully the timing of your voyage. In February, the whole world was back at school, and so the passenger demographics were older; I saw just one child. But I’m told that during school holiday times – be they Australian, British or whatever – there can be hundreds of families on board, which may or may not suit you. Bon voyage!
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