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Cruising New Zealand

Words and Photography by Michael Hooper
Cruising New Zealand

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Even after 20 years in the Royal Navy, my father would get seasick if someone swirled the ice in a cocktail glass. If the acorn does not fall far from the tree, my career choice as a cruise writer and editor might therefore seem unlikely or, at best, masochistic.

However, it was with relish that I took advantage of a regular New Zealand cruise around Aotearoa (New Zealand), to see how my country looked from the ‘other side’. The vehicle was a little slice of America called Millennium, a two thousand-passenger ship of modest size and sleek lines, certainly by comparison with some of the world’s newest floating apartment blocks.

This voyage would raise the curtain on a land that was named from the call of a lookout on the canoe of Kupe, a legendary Maori navigator. Now, it was my turn to follow the long white cloud that dapples daylight on indigo waves and daubs the cities and towns snuggling into New Zealand’s coastline ─ from indifferent Auckland to innocent Port Chalmers, and from the wind-blasted cleavage of Wellington’s hills to the breathless silence of the Marlborough Sounds.

Almost as soon we left Auckland’s temporary ocean terminal, the city was airbrushed from view by cloud pulled over our heads from the direction of Rangitoto Island. We ventured out into the Hauraki Gulf, towards a night of what was predicted to be very rough seas, but proved no more than a lullaby. At dawn, our 92,000 tonnes quietly slid through the shallows into Mount Maunganui, where shopkeepers were already wide awake with deals to tempt tourists. This was one of the few docks permitting pedestrian access, making trips to the nearby opportunist retail town easy and pleasant. Mount Maunganui staged a main street school kapa haka concert, with the added spice of logging trucks lumbering through the streets, threatening to skittle the appreciative audience.

Husband crèche: leave him here, pick him up when you’ve finished shopping, and pay only the bar tab.

Some Americans discussed a puzzling sign: ‘$11 lunch including flat white’. One inventive bar advertised: ‘Husband crèche: leave him here, pick him up when you’ve finished shopping, and pay only the bar tab’.  Other cafés had deals for ship’s crew, while stores selling bottled water did a gurgling trade as it was permitted to take water aboard (unlike wine) to consume in the privacy of one’s cabin. “This,” drawled one Connecticut shopper, “is the first place we’ve been in two months that doesn’t take American dollars. Why is that?”

I drew deeply on the straw of my daiquiri as we let go lines from the port frontage and slipped with the tide through the sand traps of Mount Maunganui’s harbour entrance – past surf-sprayed Matakana Island and into seas once again forecast to be ‘very rough’. The band played ‘Hit the Road, Jack’, and I quietly congratulated the nation’s first port for turning a positive and playful Kiwi face to tourists from the floating city. Bucking seas lined the far horizon, but there was surprisingly little roll. There was also very little rock, thanks to a rest home-ready DJ and a Filipino band with little beat. Yet more warnings about foul weather ahead permeated the entertainment deck, as we were treated to Dido singing about going down with the ship and the Hughes Corporation crooned ‘Rock the Boat’.

A brass bell inscribed with the word Olympic
An inscribed brass bell from the Olympic.

The oft-played theme from Titanic was especially spooky in the Olympic Restaurant, where foie gras and champagne were served under wood panel walls recycled from Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic. When the gigantic liner was scrapped, the inlaid and intricate panelling of her formal dining room was bought to furnish an American mansion. Celebrity Cruises found out, and bought the house to get the panelling, which it shipped to its fitters in France to recreate the famed silver-service restaurant.  With demand for its classic menus regulated by a US$30 cover charge, the Olympic Restaurant was seldom busy, and attracted us back time after time with its extreme service, gleaming silver cloches, deep bowing maître d’ and an amazing, petite, Russian sommelier with a knack for selling vintage Champagne.

The menu, executed to absolute perfection, could well have come from those Titanic times, including a fantastic mature cheese trolley with Livarot, Forme d’Ambert and La Nectare. However, this was not the night (nor indeed the lifetime) to consider the 1949 Chateau Petrus listed at US$12,400 plus 15% service charge.

Though impressive, on reflection the menu seemed rather at odds with the environment we were exploring. Thanksgiving dinner included a ‘Fall Salad’, but spring was in full flush ashore. Most of the food, even fish, had come from other seas. The high-priced wine list barely nodded towards the glory of vineyards often visible from the gangway, and bringing wine aboard for consumption with a meal was effectively prohibited by corkage greater than the cost of most bottles of wine.

Napier turned on not just a hot and beautiful wine country day, but a real art deco welcome, with a jazz vocalist and the Hawke’s Bay Vintage Car Club greeting us on the dock. Edward Harrington-Smythe introduced me to Wee Petal, his 1937 Austin Seven, and Deco Ambassador, Clarence Bertram St John Fitz-Montague (better known as Bertie), breezed around the tidy, colourful streets, chirping helpful hints to the obvious ship visitors from his open-top 1935 Austin Seven Sports Special. My nose led me past countless cafés until the superb crema on cups from the Zigg Zagg Café enticed me in for one of the most delicious espressos I’ve ever tasted, something not replicated aboard. Across Clive Square, passengers actually queued to enter the Deco Shop and purchase memorabilia. What a well-deserved bonanza for Napier, I mused over my latte.

Man dressed in period costume by his car on the Napier docks with a cruise liner behind him
Deco Ambassador ‘Bertie’ St John Fitz-Montague.

Molls, dames and toffs lined up again on the dock, along with their Chevvies and Austins, to wave farewell as we sailed into the sunset. Meanwhile, local group, The Stompers, jazzed up ‘Now is the Hour’. As the last flapper flopped into her roadster, I contemplated the perfect end to a day embodying the deco era, with classic high society cuisine, again at the Olympic.

“Welcome back, sir,” bowed the maître d’, by now bending near-horizontal, as I sank into a sea of rising bubbles.

A familiar spot viewed from the sea seems a much different place. Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, was gleaming in the morning sun with no sign of its grey government worker ants. A solitary piper played as we tied up by the ‘Cake Tin’ stadium, our observation deck high enough for a free view of any event.

Walking aimlessly around my old stomping ground brought me to a new appreciation for it. Courtenay Place is the hub, but if the port night is Thursday, Friday or Saturday, walking safely requires one eye on the pavement and one keeping a ‘weather eye’ on the bustling traffic passing by. The cable car still charms, and the waterfront beckons with weathered wharves and welcoming cafés and restaurants. Apartment conversion and conservation of many old buildings has thankfully halted the capital’s decline into faceless ‘progress’, and its personality oozes from old Newtown and the city streets south of Courtenay Place.

Sailing out from my home town had more effect than even the excitement of our initial departure from my adopted Auckland — perhaps akin to the difference between leaving a parent and leaving a lover. The wind whisked up a foamy fadeout over the rocky fingers clawing Cook Strait from Island and Houghton Bays, before the ship’s festivities drew us indoors.

A port for Christchurch is one of the hot topics of post-earthquake cruising. Lyttelton ─ which was economically stretched even before the quake ─ suffered cruelly, and the stoush between tourism and forestry-driven industry seems set to resume as the port rebuild gathers momentum. The pressing into service of tiny Akaroa village as an alternative destination has pushed that charming settlement to its hospitable limits.

At dawn the next day, as gilded sheep peered from volcanic slopes, our wake bisected the silky waters between Aramoana and the Otago Peninsula on our approach to Dunedin’s Port Chalmers. In eerie silence, the charcoal smudge of our ship’s tall shadow brushed over bluffs still wet from the dew and starting to steam in the sun’s first tentative tint. Bright blue port cranes, like triffids astride their prey of cargo containers, and Chick’s Hotel up the hill as a counterpoint to its neighbouring historic church, welcomed us to the town’s two sleepy streets. There was relief at setting foot on a dock that, even in a tiny town, would lead to locally-roasted coffee within the melt of a moment: a short wander, an espresso, and then a libation of Speight’s southern ales seemed in order.

Looking up at a green streetlamp five white globe shades
An art deco streetlamp.

It was chilly in the main street, but two likely local lads jollied into the pub in shorts and jandals, whooped at seeing the blackboard’s raffle winners, then disappeared without a drink─ presumably to spread the good news to the lucky ‘Taffy and Cruddy’. With southern candour, the sign in the pub’s pot plants pleaded, ‘No pissing, no butts’. Broad locals and drawling Canadians from the ship sought translators as they raised pints of order in eager cultural interchange. Tall bar stools and ‘leaners’ with black tubular legs reprised the days of New Zealand’s once infamous ‘6 o’clock swill’, while a tile glued across the hole in the centre of each table emphasised the more recent prohibition on smoking. Irresistible home-smoked wild salmon from a local fish shop went back with us for cabin canapés.

The gentle rise and fall of an ancient crater’s ridges and hills, and coastal crags rimmed with a salt crust of seabirds guided us out from Port Chalmers and south into the already grinding teeth of a gale. A night of light food and wine intake led to a lullaby of sweet sleep through rising seas, before an early, single-figure chill as we slid into the welcome calm and slate-grey waters of Fiordland’s sounds.

Dusky Sound, its granite escarpments shouldered in halo-bright mist, delivered on the calendar picture promise: tall, silver-white waterfalls cracked the lush bush amid cascading mountain-sides, while an onboard naturalist bubbled with information over the ship’s speakers. Fifty thousand seals would have warily watched Cook entering Dusky Sound. Now just a small percentage of that number watches the passage of humankind. Fortunately, there is a tentative recovery underway.

Past Resolution Island we slid out from the protection of Dusky Sound. The environmental officer had already secured the ship, which is sealed up when in protected and scenic waters. “We shut everything down,” he told me. “No discharges, no incineration.” Anything that is pulped, such as food waste, is sent to the sea only at speeds greater than 6 knots and at least 12 nautical miles from land in this environmentally-conscious cruise line. Our passage was reverential.

On we plied, past Pickersgill Harbour, by the Shelter Islands, and into Doubtful Sound in even brighter patches of light. Glacial hanging valleys fell to sharply etched, crevasses scarring the fiord walls, as we peered to see the few bottlenose dolphins that chose to accompany us.

A black and white view of the sea between hills, Doubful Sound, New Zealand
Doubtful Sound.

Our exit through Thomson Sound into the open sea brought banshee howls in the hawsers. “Swells of up to 7 metres and winds of 50 knots are forecast,” boomed the heavily-accented voice of Captain Zisis Taramas. “Please do not wear high heels… and enjoy this lovely evening.”

Fourteen decks of cabins stowed their stilettos and quickly gulped ginger tablets as Millennium ploughed through the wild, deep-south whitecaps. The rolling, heaving, swells seemed to provide up-drafts for the graceful albatrosses, shearwaters and other seabirds that skimmed the mountain peaks, only occasionally dipping a wingtip in the water.

Our entry into Milford Sound had to be postponed as the wind whipped the sea into a line of massive, foam-specked waves barring entry to the northern-most of sixteen fiords. The cruise director broadcast with unflagging Kermit-the-Frog enthusiasm that conditions would be “challenging” for Millennium. So, for a couple of hours we circled under white-capped Mitre Peak as the band played on, until the position of the sun betrayed that we had indeed come about to a west-nor’west bearing, heading in the direction of Australia and the conclusion of our voyage.

Millennium may be 15 years old, but she has some of the elegance of the past. It made her a fitting ship to see my country from the same perspective as the mariners both Maori and European, who discovered my fatherland. And I also reckon my sea legs did the old man proud.

Published on August 4, 2016
Country: New Zealand ›
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