There's plenty to do on and off a cruise ship, finds Shandelle Battersby, and the attentive staff make cruising even better.
"I don't know if I can ever go back to normal life again," sighed my travelling companion during our third day aboard Holland America's Volendam cruise ship, en route to Sydney after making its way around the east coast of New Zealand.
We'd just opened the curtains of our stateroom to see a pod of dolphins leaping in the glassy, serene waters of one of our largest fjords, Dusky Sound, which we were passing through as part of the day's scenic cruise in the Fiordland National Park.
We had joined the Volendam at Lyttleton for the last leg of its 14-day New Zealand and Australia luxury cruise, which had already stopped at Tauranga, Napier, Wellington and Picton since leaving Auckland seven days prior.
The ship had set sail from Dunedin's Port Chalmers the night before and we'd watched from one of the top decks as a seemingly tiny tugboat gently nudged its port side to help turn it towards Taiaroa Head at the end of the Otago Peninsula.
It was a strange feeling to think that we wouldn't be setting foot on land for the next three days as we sailed out of the harbour on our way to the next port of call, Hobart, Tasmania - a notoriously bumpy crossing across the Tasman Sea. But the sail-away started off smoothly enough, with the ship making good progress past the royal albatross colony at the tip of the Otago Peninsula headland. We watched from the bow as the impressively giant birds swooped and sailed through the air in front of our bulk, gliding on the high winds.
During the night, we rounded the bottom of the South Island, waking to the sight of those dolphins, sliding through the still waters so close to the deep green shoreline that at times it almost felt we could reach out and touch it.
We next passed through Doubtful Sound, the second largest of the 14 fjords in the national park, but the best of New Zealand was yet to come later that afternoon with our arrival at Milford Sound. The 16km-long fjord's towering, sheer-faced cliffs and snow-covered Mitre Peak took our breath away when we walked out on to the Volendam's bow to get a closer look.
The ship, despite its size, is surprisingly silent and the serenity of the moment was broken only by hundreds of passengers murmuring in hushed, reverential tones as they marvelled at the area's dramatic beauty.
Due to our bulk, we couldn't go too far up the sound and, after about an hour, we swung around and headed back to the open sea.
From here, our journey to Hobart took two more days, giving us plenty of time to relax and enjoy this luxurious floating hotel.
Every day there is a list as long as your arm of on-board activities ranging from tai chi, to trivia and karaoke challenges, to meetings of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
On top of this, there is the comprehensive Greenhouse Spa and Salon, a fully equipped gym, (covered) tennis and basketball courts, two pools (one with a retractable roof) and hot tubs, performances by a range of singers and dancers, several bars, a nightclub (manned by an ex-Aucklander no less), movie theatre, library, an internet cafe, casino and duty free shops.
Digital workshops on board help passengers with their computers and digital cameras, while the Culinary Arts Centre features cooking demonstrations and classes.
Children between the ages of 3 and 17 are well catered for in Club HAL, which has three age-specific areas stocked with games, toys, movies and activities guaranteed to amuse younger travellers for hours.
We tried to experience as much as we could - the seminar on the art of folding towels into animals which the stateroom stewards do every night as part of the turn-down service was a particular highlight - but mostly concerned ourselves with the serious business of eating.
In the interests of research, we made it our mission to attend the usually themed silver service high tea every afternoon in the Rotterdam Dining Room. Dinner time was always a chance to try foods we'd only read about, matched with incredible - often local - wines from cellar master Ingo.
And we made sure we were front and centre for the Dessert Extravaganza, a bewildering display of sweet treats set up around the edge of the Lido Deck's pool which seemed to stretch for sugary miles.
The patient, friendly and professional 600-odd staff - largely made up of Filipinos and Indonesians - make keeping the more than 1400 passengers organised and happy look easy. Getting off and on the ship, time changes, and Customs requirements are all made as simple as possible and cause little disruption to ship life.
Some of the staff took the well-deserved opportunity to blow off some steam at the Halloween Monster Mash Costume Ball in the Crow's Nest nightclub, flinging each other around the dance floor while dressed in elaborate costumes.
Halloween on board was so much fun - luckily we'd had some advance warning and had stocked up on costumes in Dunedin a few days prior - with the ship decked out from head to toe in cobwebs, ghouls, jack-o'-lanterns and skulls. A "dead body" wrapped up like a mummy was even carried through the dining room at dinner.
In a nod to the waters we were sailing through, there were displays of Australian and New Zealand animals in front of their respective flags in one of the dining areas. Amusingly for the Kiwis and Aussies on board, the New Zealand one featured a big fat wombat and two platypuses, which the staff member in charge had thought were possums. Still, we appreciated the gesture.
On port days, guests are offered a range of excursions at a variety of costs or can do their own thing if they prefer.
At Dunedin, I spent an hour with Nature's Wonders on an Argo tour of their privately owned property at Taiaroa Head. The Argos are 8x8-wheel-drive all terrain vehicles which are basically snowmobiles and fun to beetle about the area's rugged terrain on.
We visited New Zealand fur seals in their natural habitat, saw a pair of tiny blue penguins snuggled in a concrete shelter and spied on nesting yellow-eyed penguins from a purpose-built hide on Penguin Beach.
Later in Eden, a small fishing port on the south coast of New South Wales, I opted for a cruise of Twofold Bay, and was rewarded with sightings of whales, dolphins and Australian fur seals.
We loved our time on board the Volendam but, of course, all good things must come to an end. Our last night at sea was marked with a Master Chef's Dinner with parades and singing by the staff. This included a March of the Baked Alaska complete with a conga line, a kind of napkin ballet, spinning plates, and an amazing menu including lobster bisque and duck breast a l'orange.
The next morning we got up at 5am to watch from the bow as the Volendam quietly made its way into Sydney Harbour, past Fort Denison and the Opera House, coming to a rest close by the Harbour Bridge at Circular Quay. It was a spectacular way to finish a memorable experience.
It's what you make of it
Lots of people have asked me if, at the tender age of 33, I was the youngest passenger on the Volendam by a golden mile.
I was certainly amongst the most youthful, but there were a couple of others around the same age group on board, all travelling for different reasons, including a dutiful son accompanying elderly parents, and an energetic engineer from Perth who was sailing solo.
The engineer had been on board since the ship left Canada 40-odd days before and was making the most of the experience: going to cha cha lessons, playing tennis and even learning to knit. And that, I decided, is the key to enjoying the cruising way of life - it is completely what you make of it.
If you want to meet people then there is something for everyone on board, from cooking classes to exercise challenges. At meal times, when it's appropriate, staff go out of their way to seat you at tables with others. And, if you're travelling alone, the ship definitely feels safe enough to pop along to the Crow's Nest nightclub for a couple of drinks after dinner, with the added bonus of your stateroom just an elevator ride away.
But if you want to relax by the pool on the Lido Deck or curl up on a sofa in the Explorations Lounge on-board library for a nap in the afternoon nobody will disturb you.
Yes, there are a lot of elderly people on the boat. And yes, you may be mistaken for one of the crew from time to time. But some of those elderly people have great senses of humour and interesting stories to share. And Holland America say the average age of their passengers is getting younger all the time.
I certainly wouldn't write off trying the cruising experience because you think everyone on board will be fusty and boring ... like anything in life, it's what you make of it that counts.
Further information: Volendam and Zaandam will be based in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the South Pacific during the 2011-12 cruising season. For more information on Holland America's cruises see a travel professional or call Francis Travel Marketing on (09) 444 2298 or see hollandamerica.com.
Shandelle Battersby cruised as a guest of Holland America.