Napier: Birds and deco delight cruise visitors

By Pam Neville

Napier does us proud. There are vintage cars on the wharf, buskers on the street, jazz in the air, and half the people seem to be dressed in 1920s clothes. It's not yet Art Deco Weekend, but the city has turned on the charm for the passengers of two cruise ships in port for a day.

Our tour bus driver assures us this air of celebration is muted compared with the real event. "They have one hell of a party when it's Art Deco Weekend."

Passengers off the Silver Shadow are delighted with their welcome, even though they are a few weeks too early for the real party. And some are disappointed to have so little time to enjoy the delights of Napier.

"The ship really should make a longer stop in this place," says one. "Wow, I'd love to come back here for their special Art Deco weekend," says another, as the bus whizzes past one classic building after another.

Some of the cruise passengers have seen the architecture of Napier in more leisurely fashion, from the footpaths or from the leather seats of vintage cars. My group is on a bus on the way home from the Cape Kidnappers gannet sanctuary.

This was an optional safari that filled the time before the Silver Shadow sailed again at 2pm, so there was no time to dally in the city. But the gannet group were more than happy with their choice.

"Extremely worthwhile," says a passenger who specialises in wildlife photography. She must have taken a thousand shots of gannets - gannets nesting, feeding chicks, courting, taking off, landing and fighting off black-backed gulls - but she could still have spent all day there.

"So much better than seeing one albatross behind a glass window," she says, in reference to a disappointing wildlife experience in the South Island a few days earlier.

The journey through Cape Kidnappers farmland is hot and dusty and the passengers haven't a clue what the driver is talking about when he points out "shearing quarters, where the rousies live" and discusses "two-tooths" and "full-mouths".

"I think a ewe is a baby sheep," says a passenger who is doing her best to interpret sheep-farmer-language for the others. No matter, everyone greatly enjoys the Kiwi morning tea of scones, cakes and strawberries.

Then it's back through the logs, logs and more logs - "Every port we've been to in New Zealand is full of logs" - to our floating palace in the middle of the working port of Napier.

Time to relax, eat and sleep while the palace makes an overnight move to our next port of call.

Can there be a better way to start the day than by sailing into Tauranga Harbour in early morning sunshine? Especially when the butler, Armando, delivers a pot of tea and opens the doors to a private veranda?

Dozens of walkers are already on the track around the base of Mt Maunganui and some wave from a little beach. The bronze statue of Tangaroa, god of the sea, guards us as we glide through the entrance, a Dolphin Safaris boat gives a friendly toot as we pass, and a kite surfer puts on an aerobatic display.

The Port of Tauranga has better facilities than many of the cruise ship stops in New Zealand. Although there are logs and heavy machinery, they are a long way from our berth. Security is less intrusive than in Napier, and there's a marquee to shelter passengers as they sort out their destinations for the day.

My fellow passengers enjoyed being able to leave the ship and walk to cafes, shops and beaches. In Napier, we were not allowed to walk through the port area, and in Wellington the cruise ship berth is an unpleasant place by piles of logs and a grimy highway.

At the Mount some passengers were unaware of the fabulous Mount main beach and thought the harbour beach was "it". An opportunity for some enterprising local to set up a guided walking tour perhaps? Or at least a sign suggesting a walking route.

A shuttle bus whizzed back and forth over the bridge to the city and passengers seeking a full day's outing could choose between a bus trip over the Kaimais to Hobbiton, or a visit to the "geothermal wonderland" of Rotorua, such as a trip to Hell's Gate with a "Maori encounter" including a hangi lunch.

For the well-heeled, of whom there seem to be an astonishing number on the Silver Shadow, a 45-minute helicopter tour of "volcanic Rotorua" is available. A five-passenger helicopter costs $4299 and a three-person one is $3199.

I find myself on the small luxury ship as part of an effort by its owners to promote the joys of cruising. Sailing from Wellington to Auckland is not a usual option, with most cruises lasting about two weeks.

On board with me are about 400 guests and 300 staff. Armando the butler is from the Philippines, as is the maid, Aida. In the beauty salon, the staff are from Poland. The staff work six months on board, then go home for two months before returning for another six-month stint.Of the passengers, about two thirds are American, a third Australian and one third rest-of-the-world. Most are elderly. Many are veteran cruisers, often doing back-to-back cruises so they are at sea for months.

Time passes. I meet women who get their hair styled in the salon every afternoon in preparation for dinner.

Some evenings are formal, when a dinner jacket or at least a dark suit and tie for men are required. Others are informal, although men must still wear a jacket to enter the dining room. And some are casual, where a chap might get away with a polo shirt and slacks.

Speaking of chaps, there are a couple of "gentlemen hosts" whose job is to dance with the ladies of an evening. These men, both American, don't get a wage but are cruising free of charge.

Afternoon tea is always a formal affair, with staff offering tea, sandwiches, scones and delicate cakes. It's possible to fit in half a dozen meals a day on a cruise ship, which explains why a British survey found that passengers on all-inclusive cruises gain weight at the rate of nearly half a kilo a day. But the walking track, swimming pool and exercise classes were always busy on the Silver Shadow and none of the passengers were noticeably overweight.

Meeting people is easy, in fact almost unavoidable. At dinner I sit next to an elderly American woman who regales the table with the benefits of "the Jewish antibiotic", chicken soup.

"Get your butler to order some from room service as soon as you get back to your suite," she orders a cold-stricken diner.

The cure-all seems to have worked for this feisty little lady. She and her husband were taking a brief shore break in Sydney before getting back on the ship for a cruise around Southeast Asia. They take as many as six cruises each year, and spend more time afloat than at home in New York.

The Silver Shadow will be back in New Zealand waters in December and January. Fifteen-day cruises from Sydney to Auckland, via Tasmania, Milford Sound, Stewart Island and up the east coast via Napier and Tauranga to Auckland, or the reverse order, cost $8000 or more and from $10,000 if you want a private veranda. Food and drink is included. Shore excursions are extra.

- Hamilton News

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